Last Thursday, Gov. Dannel Malloy wisely vetoed legislation that purported to crack down on animal cruelty by requiring anyone convicted of abusing an animal to register on a public statewide database.
Although well-intentioned, this bill could have costly, unintended consequences that leave animals more vulnerable to abuse. Gov. Malloy recognized these concerns, but now the bill’s proponents are hoping the Connecticut General Assembly will override the veto when it convenes next week.
They argue that the veto sends the message that animal cruelty is not a serious matter. However, a closer look at the animal abuser registry proposal makes clear that veto was the best outcome for animals and those who care about them, and that legislators should reject an override vote.
This bill, simply put, won’t help animals — but it could hurt them. According to Connecticut’s judicial branch, from 2007 through 2017, approximately 80 percent of all animal cruelty charges under the state’s general cruelty law — which includes misdemeanor and felony cruelty and animal fighting — were dismissed or otherwise not prosecuted. The available evidence, gleaned from anecdotal reports as well as peer-reviewed studies, indicates that the proposed animal abuser registry would exacerbate this already significant dismissal problem.
In particular, its complicated registration requirements and hefty penalties for noncompliance would likely encourage courts to offer pre-trial diversion options that lead to the dismissal of cruelty charges, and only limited prohibitions on future animal contact.
An animal abuse registry would actually impede effective humane law enforcement and reduce public safety, despite initially appearing to offer the public peace of mind. This was sadly illustrated by the recent disturbing case of an emaciated 3-year-old dog found dead and frozen solid in his doghouse in which the Hartford judge permitted the defendant to enter a pre-trial diversion program resulting in the dismissal of charges and withdrawal of an order barring future animal contact after a 2-year probationary period.
Given the pressure to dismiss — and otherwise reduce charges — that an animal abuser registry can exert, it is perhaps unsurprising that existing registries have very few registrants. In Tennessee, the only state to enact a registry so far, there are only 14 individuals currently on the list. Other registries are similarly sparse — in New York State, the Rockland County registry has only three entries, as does the Albany County registry, while the Westchester County registry has a single entry and New York City has a mere 20 registrants.
If funded, this legislation will divert resources away from truly helpful reforms. The price tag to build and maintain the registry would cost Connecticut a whopping $200,000 per year. Advocates of the registry have sought to assuage fears regarding cost and the measure’s potential harmful impact on animals by noting that legislators have not actually allocated these funds, which, they also emphasize, are unlikely to become available soon given Connecticut’s challenging financial position.
Is this all animals and their advocates can hope for? Money that isn’t actually allocated for a program that has superficial appeal but could actually be inhumane? Instead of spending money on a registry that could result in abusers going unpunished, Connecticut should ensure that it is using no-animal contact orders for those who are convicted to the fullest extent possible and invest real money in other critical anti-cruelty efforts such as mandatory psychiatric counseling for offenders, expanded enforcement of the state’s cruelty laws and expanded spay/neuter services.
The Connecticut House and Senate should refrain from overriding this humane veto and instead commit to working closely with advocates to enact genuine protections for animals.
Debora M. Bresch is the senior state director of government relations for the ASPCA, Upper-Atlantic Region.