WESTERLY — A bill proposed by a member of the Town Council and supported by two Westerly legislators aims to bolster Rhode Island's animal cruelty laws.
Identical measures sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (S2698) , and House bill H7912, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Samuel Azzinaro, would, according to its summary, authorize "the potential appointment of pro bono attorneys, supervised law students and from a list maintained by the DEM to act as animal advocates in animal cruelty and abuse cases, at the court's discretion, to serve the interests of justice."
Sharon Ahern, who is serving her first term on the Town Council, consulted with the state veterinarian and the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in writing the language. Under current laws, the state Department of Environmental Management can appoint as an advocate the state veterinarian or a representative from the RISPCA, but Ahern said the system is flawed because it can create a situation in which someone involved in prosecuting a case is also asked to function as an animal advocate. Too often, Ahern said, individuals accused of animal cruelty make no-contest pleas, resulting in no record of the offense.
The proposed bill would strengthen the advocate position by making it more independent. "This would allow for the appointment of an animal advocate who is authorized to see a case through from beginning to end," Ahern said.
According to the Humane Society's website, "a number of studies have drawn links between the abuse of animals and violence against people." One of the studies was conducted from 2001 to 2004 by the Chicago Police Department. It found a 65% correlation among people arrested for animal crimes and battery against another person.
Ahern's work is based on "Desmond's Law," enacted in Connecticut in 2016. The law puts a pro bono lawyer or a law student under the supervision of a law professor in court to advocate for the dog or cat victim of egregious abuse. Connecticut courts extended the representation to a case involving terrible cruelty to rabbits.
Desmond's Law, which is named after a shelter dog that was starved, beaten and strangled to death, was written and sponsored by former Democratic Rep. Diana Urban, who represented Stonington and North Stonington for 18 years.
In an interview last week, Urban pointed to several examples showing a link between animal cruelty and violent behavior toward people. Nicholas Cruz, the 19-year-old who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, allegedly abused animals before carrying out the massacre. Devlin Kelly, who shot and killed 26 people at a Baptist church in Texas in 2017, had been arrested three years earlier for abusing a dog by repeatedly punching and slamming it to the ground.
"There are innumerable examples of this link," Urban said. "It haunts me...if we had paid attention, who knows how many children's lives could have been saved."
Having a lawyer or law student serve as an advocate works best because trained legal professionals can navigate a courtroom and understand legal proceedings better than untrained individuals, Urban said.
Since the Connecticut law went into effect, the state's courts have appointed advocates in more than 70 cases, Urban said. "We're compiling data now to see how it has changed outcomes," she said.
Like Ahern, Urban wants convictions in animal cruelty cases to establish criminal records for offenders, as opposed to granting them "accelerated rehabilitation" or other diversionary programs. "It's an act of violence. People should know about it," Urban said.
Maine has enacted a similar law since Desmond's Law was adopted in Connecticut, and Urban said 12 other states are considering the same type of legislation.
Ahern, a lawyer who is working on becoming a certified animal cruelty investigator, is seeking letters of support for the proposed Rhode Island bill. To date, she has received submissions from Stand Up for Animals, Paws Watch, the Rhode Island Police Chiefs' Association, and Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey.
Comments on the legislation can be sent by email to Sen. Erin Lynch Prata, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, email@example.com; Algiere, firstname.lastname@example.org; Rep. Robert E. Craven Sr., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, email@example.com; and Azzinaro, firstname.lastname@example.org.