THANK GOODNESS for the U.S. attorney's office, which has been working for more than a year on an investigation into illegal cockfighting operations that in recent weeks has produced charges against 23 people. For all practical purposes, that's the only weapon our state has in the fight against this insidious bloodsport.
It's not that state and local police and prosecutors don't understand the need to combat this gateway crime, with its inextricable links to gambling and illegal drugs and the devastating effect it has on the children who are dragged by their parents to the fights for lessons in becoming barbaric thugs who place no value on life. They understand it very well, and are working with federal officials on this latest investigation.
But the Legislature has tied their hands, by refusing to treat cockfighting the same way it treats dogfighting, bear-bating and other bloodcrimes. Although lawmakers increased the penalties a couple of years ago (cockfighting has been illegal in our state since 1917), the penalties still are light, and the crime still is classified as a misdemeanor; federal prison sentences are five times as long and fines 25 times as high.
So the only way state officials can justify the time-consuming investigations and win sentences that will act as a deterrent and not just a cost of doing business is to convince the U.S. attorney to bring the charges. It's the legal (though not moral) equivalent of local police having to ask permission and assistance from federal prosecutors before they can charge someone with robbery or rape or murder. And this in a state that claims to disdain federal interference in what are quite properly state prerogatives.
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What's astounding about this crime - and even more dangerous than the crime itself - is the audacity of the criminals. They testify at legislative hearings, openly admitting that they run fights, and dare lawmakers to crack down on their crime. They write threatening letters to public officials and anyone else who criticizes them. They show off their operations to reporters, as they did recently for The State's John Monk, and are quite willing to be quoted by name while they defend their "proud heritage" of cockfighting. The slightly less audacious ones insist they're just breeding those chickens to be as strong and aggressive as possible for no reason, apparently, other than to look at them.
That's sort of like gang members showing off their crack-cooking operation and insisting that they don't actually use or sell the drugs. They're just scientists, they explain, pursing experiments to come up with the purest form of cocaine - just to look at it, because it's so pretty, mind you.
Of course, that would never happen, because we treat drug dealing like the serious crime it is. We don't wait around for a second conviction to seize the criminals' property. We send people jail when we catch them doing it. Not so with cockfighting.
If the damage cockfighting inflicts on children and the other crimes it engenders weren't reason enough for lawmakers to toughen the penalties, they at least should consider the immense disrespect it breeds for the law. It is dangerous to the orderly functioning of society when people feel that they have impunity to boast of their crimes. And that's precisely the situation we find ourselves in.
Gamecock fighting, we are told, once was practiced by some of South Carolina's leading families. So was owning slaves. So was lynching. All three have since been outlawed, but the cockfighters can't seem to accept that - and they won't until our lawmakers pass laws that pack enough punch to make them accept it.