A bill to criminalize dog fighting in the Garden State cleared an Assembly panel on Thursday.

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Dog fighting is back in the news this week in a big way. Earlier this week, Eagles Quarterback Michael Vick cancelled a book tour, including a stop in the Garden State after receiving death threats. Vick spent 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to dog fighting charges.

The measure would establish new crimes of 'dog fighting' and 'leader of a dog fighting network.'

The bi-partisan legislation is co-sponsored by Assembly members Nancy Munoz and Gordon Johnson. It also amends the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) statute to add 'leader of a dog fighting network,' to the list of offenses the state considers racketeering activity in the state.

"All too often, there are accounts of animal cruelty, including the discovery of dog fighting rings that seek to profit from this heinous act," Muñoz says. "This bill strengthens the penalties for anyone involved in promoting or participating in the ruthless act of dog fighting."

Prison Time for Dog Fighting

While animal fighting in general is currently prohibited in the state, the bill specifically identifies dog fighting and would be a third degree crime, which carries a prison term of three-to-five years and a fine of up to $15,000.

"Dog fighting is deplorable and should be prosecuted as a criminal act," Johnson says. "Unfortunately, New Jersey has seen far too many cases of this kind of criminal treatment toward animals in our communities. It's time to strengthen state law by imposing stronger penalties for dog fighting and its ring leaders."

A person who conspires with others in order to profit from dog fighting is considered a leader of dog fighting which would be included in the list of offenses considered racketeering activity under RICO law. Being a leader of a dog fighting enterprise is a second degree offense.

"Profits from dog fighting are often times used by gangs or other criminal elements to fund their illegal activities," Muñoz explains. "Including the crime of leading a dog fighting ring under the anti-racketeering law will help law enforcement shut down one of the sources of funding for these kinds of criminal enterprises."

"This legislation is not only about preventing cruelty to dogs, but sends an unmistakable message that no one will profit from it as well."

The measure now heads to the Assembly Speaker who will decide when to post it for a floor vote.

"This legislation would codify what we already know to be true," Johnson says. "Dog fighting is a crime. In New Jersey, it will be treated as one upon enactment of this bill."