Published April 18. 2013 4:00PM Updated April 19. 2013 6:13AM
Hartford — State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, is pushing forward a bill to provide advocates for the animals involved in animal abuse cases in court.
She believes that advocates in court will increase convictions for animal abuse. "Is this about animal cruelty? Of course it is, but what it is really about is red flags," Urban said Thursday at a press conference.
The Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the bill by a 38-6 vote Tuesday, which will be sent next to the Environment Committee. If that committee passes the bill, it would head to the floor of the House and then the Senate.
If it were to become law, House Bill 6690 would allow the court or counsel to request an advocate be assigned to represent the interests of the animal. The commissioner of the Department of Agriculture would maintain a list of people with expertise in animal welfare or legal advocacy to serve on a voluntary basis, according to the bill.
Those who oppose the bill say it puts animals ahead of people, Urban said. Rather, she said, "the idea is that the animal is the indicator that this person is gonna go on and do it to a person."
Urban cited as examples the Columbine High School killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who had histories of animal abuse, according to multiple animal rights organizations and news reports.
"Had we stepped in when these young men did what they did, we might have been able to save lives," Urban said. "We are looking for an early sign of mental illness, that is what our whole perspective has been on Sandy Hook. It's right here in front of our face."
The bill has 19 co-sponsors from both parties.
At the press conference Thursday, state Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, said most people assume when they read about animal abuse that the person committing the abuse will face serious jail time, but research shows that often the person does not.
In the last 10 years in Connecticut, 3,699 charges were brought under the statute concerning specific animal cruelty acts, according to the state's Office of Legislative Research. Of those, 594 resulted in a conviction. About half the cases were not prosecuted.
The statute on animal abuse states that any person who maliciously and purposefully maims, mutilates, tortures, wounds or kills an animal will be fined up to $5,000 or imprisoned for up to five years or both.
At the press conference, legislators referred to a Branford animal abuse case in which the accused, Alex Wullaert, was given supervised diversionary program for people with psychiatric disabilities instead of prison time.
When in the supervised diversionary program, the Court Support Services Division with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services places the person in a program that provides community supervision, treatment and services. The person is also subject to supervision by a probation officer.
If the person successfully completes the program, the charges are dismissed.
Erasing a charge is part of the problem, Urban said.
"I am doing everything I can think of to draw attention to the fact that this is a red flag, and if I was a parent and something happened to my child from someone given AR (accelerated rehabilitation or supervised diversionary program) or discharge because we didn't think it was important, I don't know what I would say," Urban said.
Rep. Jack Hennessy, D-Bridgeport, said of Urban's efforts: "At a time when the nation is scrutinizing laws to find ways to increase public safety, Rep. Urban's bill serves as an indispensable puzzle piece in the overall picture of addressing and preventing animal cruelty."