Last Updated June 21, 2016 at 2:45 p.m.
Each year, thousands of people are charged in animal cruelty cases for abusing their pets or other animals. But many of those charges don't result in trial or conviction.
That could soon change in Connecticut.
Legislation signed by Gov. Dan Malloy makes Connecticut the first state in the nation to appoint "animal advocates" to assist courts in deciding animal cruelty cases. The new measure allows judges to choose pro bono lawyers or law students to represent victims -- in this case, pet cats and dogs -- by gathering witness testimony as well as other records from police, animal control and veterinarians.
The law is a victory for animal rights proponents who see Connecticut's current approach as a pro-forma rehab process that fails to adequately prosecute offenders and prevent future abuse.
"Animal cruelty is still somewhat under-prioritized by the court system because it’s 'just an animal,'" says state Rep. Diana Urban, who wrote the bill known as Desmond’s Law, named for a dog that was found strangled to death by his owner in 2012. But Urban framed the legislation as a remedy for more than just animals, citing research that shows people who abuse animals often commit acts of violence against people, too. Earlier this year, the FBI began collecting acts of cruelty against animals in its national crime database, which federal officials hope will allow them to examine whether animal abuse is a precursor to other types of crime.
In Connecticut, the high-profile case of Desmond galvanized activists who believed the owner didn't receive appropriate punishment: He completed a rehab course and his record was then sealed by the court.
“There was no question in anyone’s mind that he would get jail time,” said Urban. But when he didn't, "a lot of people said, ‘This has got to stop.’"
The Desmond case was typical for the state: In Connecticut, 82 percent of people charged with animal cruelty either see their cases thrown out or are sent to rehabilitation. Animal rights groups say that rehab often amounts to periodic check-ins with a supervisor or possibly community service, and that the program isn't tailored to address cases of animal violence.
The new law could potentially lead to faster rulings and more convictions because it lets judges designate a single person to gather information about a case and present it all at once.
But some critics worry that bringing more animal cruelty cases to trial will bog down Connecticut's court system -- the very thing rehabilitation and other pre-trial diversion programs are designed to prevent. Sen. Joe Markley, one of the few state lawmakers to oppose the legislation, said that while of course he supports the goal of reducing animal cruelty, creating a new category of legal advocate in the state could place a strain on the judicial system. Desmond's Law, he said, is "unprecedented" and could have unforeseen consequences on the courts.
One other state -- Rhode Island -- does allow judges to appoint animal advocates in cruelty cases, but they aren't legal experts. They're veterinarians, either from the state’s agriculture division or the nonprofit Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). At a judge's request, these veterinarians may inspect animals for evidence of animal fighting, neglect or mistreatment.
Connecticut lawmakers decided to take a different tack because it appears that judges in Rhode Island don't use that option.
“I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve never been called to be an advocate,” said Scott Marshall, the Rhode Island state veterinarian who oversees animal health. “And, to my knowledge, neither has anyone from SPCA.”
Marshall suspects judges either don’t know about the animal advocate law or choose not to use veterinary expertise because it would slow down court proceedings.
In Connecticut, Desmond's Law passed both state legislative chambers easily, 119-24 in the House and 34-2 in the Senate. Gov. Malloy's office announced on May 31 that he had signed the measure.