Urban links bill toughening animal cruelty law to school shooting prevention

State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, is introducing a bill that would prohibit judges from granting a special form of probation that eventually erases the crime from the record of a person accused of violence against animals.

In addition, she is proposing to reclassify bestiality from the misdemeanor it is now under the state’s fourth-degree sexual assault law, which pertains to human victims and dead bodies, to a felony under the most serious subsection of the animal cruelty statute.

“If you stab a dog, if you strangle a dog, if you rape a dog, it’s violence. Let’s recognize that,” she said Tuesday after a Capitol news conference in which she unveiled the legislation.

Urban, who successfully introduced previous legislation such as Desmond’s law, which addresses the link between animal cruelty and domestic violence, said there is also overwhelming evidence that many mass shooters — including Devin Kelley, who killed 26 at a Texas church, and Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 at a Florida high school last week — previously tortured and killed animals.

Urban said strengthening the state’s animal cruelty law, to make sure there is a record of a conviction and that those accused of such activities undergo intensive counseling and rehabilitation when a problem first occurs, could prevent school shootings.

“My point is, When is this country going to wake up? If we take these crimes seriously, we may prevent another school shooting,” she said. “Judges don’t seem to recognize animal cruelty as violence even though we have the link" to mass shootings.

Urban said she does not necessarily want to see everyone charged with violent animal cruelty go to prison but that there should be a public record of their crime to help indicate if that person could become a mass shooter or commit violent acts against others.

Urban pointed out that her proposal to prohibit accelerated rehabilitation for those charged with animal cruelty would not apply to those charged under the law subsection that deals with neglecting and failing to care for animals.

Instead it would apply to subsection (b), a Class C and D felony that involves the intentional and malicious maiming, torturing, mutilating, wounding or killing of animals.

Judges now have the discretion to offer alternative programs, such as conditional discharge and accelerated rehabilitation, which seals the case as soon as someone applies for admission into the program and dismisses the charge and erases all public record of the crime when the program is complete. The program is available to defendants who a judge feels will probably not commit more crimes. The charges can be reinstituted if the accused violates the stipulations of the program, such as getting arrested again, using drugs or alcohol, violating protective orders or failing to complete counseling and treatment programs or paying restitution.

According to the state Office of Legislative Research, 3,723 offenses were charged under the animal cruelty statute in the state from 2006 to 2016. Of the 34 percent, or 1,267 cases, that were dismissed, 1,012 of those were dismissed after the offender completed a diversionary program such as accelerated rehabilitation. Another 46 percent, or 1,707 cases, were not prosecuted.

During that time period, 55 cases involved intentional and maliciously maiming, mutilating, torturing, wounding or killing animals. Of those, 24 cases were not prosecuted, four were dismissed, 25 resulted in guilty pleas and two were found not guilty.

In 2016, the legislature passed a bill introduced by Urban called Desmond’s law, which allows judges to assign volunteer legal advocates, such as University of Connecticut law school students and pro bono attorneys, to assist prosecutors in compiling information in animal cruelty cases. Urban said she found busy prosecutors often do not have the resources to compile reports from police, animal control officers, veterinarians and others needed to prosecute the cases that result in offenders being put into diversionary programs.

The second part of Urban’s proposal involves bestiality, a subject she said is an uncomfortable one for people to talk about.

Urban said that part of her bill was prompted by a case this year out of Bethlehem, in which a 19-year-old was granted accelerated rehabilitation for allegedly sexually assaulting his family’s dog. As of Tuesday, that case remained sealed. She said that as a juvenile, the teen had faced similar allegations involving sexual activity against an animal. That case also was sealed.

On Feb. 14 the 19-year-old was charged with burglary and trying to steal a car in Torrington, which likely means he violated the conditions of his accelerated rehabilitation. He is due in court March 12. He is being held on a $3,000 bond on the burglary and larceny charges at the New Haven Correctional Center.

Urban said she was surprised to find out the 19-year-old was charged not with animal cruelty but fourth-degree sexual assault, a misdemeanor often used to charge someone accused of groping a person. She said that “raping a dog” should be treated as a violent act against an animal. Her proposal would move the crime to the animal cruelty statute, where it would be treated the same as the torture or killing of a dog, a felony. She said another option is to amend the fourth-degree sexual assault statute to make the sexual assault of an animal a felony.

“People don’t think it happens here. But it does,” Urban said about bestiality. “It may not happen much but if it does, it should be appropriately responded to and should not be a misdemeanor. It’s the rape of a sentient being. It’s a violent act.”

Urban said the bill will be taken up by the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. She said she has talked to the committee chairs about the bill but said some state legislators are reluctant to limit a judge’s ability to grant accelerated rehabilitation.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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