Editorials

Editorial: SC needs serious penalties for cockfighting, a gateway to violent crime

INQ SWANSON

SOME PEOPLE will never obey the law, no matter how likely it is that they’ll get caught, no matter how high the penalty.

But they are the exceptions. Most people will obey most laws simply because it is the law, and most people want to live within the guidelines we as a society have agreed to. Increase the chance of getting caught violating the law, and you’ll increase the compliance rate. Increase the penalty for violating the law, and you’ll increase that rate even more.

That’s why seat-belt use in South Carolina skyrocketed after the Legislature finally allowed police to start enforcing the law.

It’s why the insane combination of texting and driving is likely to decline — or at least break the exponential trajectory — now that the Legislature banned that.

It’s why the Legislature needs to increase penalties for politicians who violate our ethics law, and give an independent body the authority and tools to investigate legislators’ compliance with the law.

And it’s why the raid last month on a cockfighting operation in Marlboro County reminds us once again that we need to enact some serious penalties for this training ground for violent criminals.

South Carolina is one of just nine states that classify cockfighting as a misdemeanor, with maximum penalties of just $1,000 or a year in prison, regardless of how many times the criminal has been convicted. And with prison time virtually unheard of, fines often far below the maximum, organizers hauling in thousands of dollars in unreported, untaxed profits for each event and raids infrequent, it’s a minor cost of doing business. That’s why it flourishes.

Well, that and a subculture that embraces the crime as a “way of life” and a larger culture that ignores the damage it does to the children who often are in attendance and to society in general, and to the other crimes it breeds.

We have laws against animal cruelty less to protect animals than to protect ourselves, and our society. Animal cruelty of any sort is a strong predictor of violence against humans. Blood sports in particular nurture a culture of lawlessness that often has an enduring effect on participants and spectators, by teaching them to celebrate killing and devalue life; that’s one reason we classify dog fighting and most other animal fighting as felonies. And like the other blood sports, it draws its lifeblood from gambling and illegal drug trafficking.

A bill by Sen. Katrina Shealy would require a fine of between $500 and $1,000 for a first offense and make subsequent offenses a felony, punishable by fines of $1,000 to $3,000 and five years in prison. It also would make it a crime to watch the fights, with third offenders subject to a felony charge with up to five years in prison. A bill by Rep. Deborah Long would prohibit bringing children to cockfights and aid enforcement by making it a crime to possess cockfighting equipment.

Both are extremely reasonable bills. Both have been completely ignored, as lawmakers have done pretty much every year since that time the cockfighters started issuing threats against legislators, and hired a lobbyist to make their case. All that happened when the Legislature made a brief push to crack down on the crime after state Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Sharpe got busted by the FBI for taking bribes to protect an illegal cockfighting operation.

When our Legislature refuses, year after year, to increase the penalties for cockfighting, it sends a message to that subculture — emboldening it to the point that we’ve had cockfighters show up at legislative hearings to demand that lawmakers not increase the penalty, so he and his ilk could keep violating the law. It also sends a message to police, that they really shouldn’t waste their time on this matter.

Fortunately, we do have law enforcement officials who recognize that cockfighting and other forms of animal cruelty are gateway crimes, which frequently lead to violent crimes against human beings. But we shouldn’t have to rely on a few individual law enforcement officials getting that message in spite of the Legislature. The Legislature ought to be leading the way to deliver that message.

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