Editorial: Crime and counseling
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1998:
Pending before the California legislature as ANIMAL PEOPLE goes to press is
SB1991, a bill “to require counseling as a condition of probation for any person who is convicted
of killing, maiming or abusing an animal.”
Introduced by state senator Jack O’Connell (D-San Luis Obispo), SB1991 was
drafted by the Doris Day Animal League, and is endorsed by the Humane Society of the U.S.,
the Animal Protection Institute, and the Fund for Animals, among many other organizations.
SB1991 sounds good, on paper. If enacted, it will no doubt be ballyhooed in mailings
by all who support it as a “victory,” to be emulated in other states.
But Political Animals founder Sherry DeBoer sees SB1991 as at least potentially
“the most destructive piece of anti-animal legislation ever to move in California.”
As written, she believes, it could undo more than a decade of work to introduce
meaningful cruelty sentencing. Other humane analysts share similar concerns.
No one more actively directs attention toward cruelty cases than AnimalTalk online
host Dick Weavil (>>email@example.com<<), whose Internet bulletins often inundate public
officials with demands for appropriate response.
“While the concept of counseling sounds good on the surface,” Weavil posted on
April 15, “I would rather see mandatory counseling imposed in addition to incarceration
and/or stiff fines. The probation and counseling should occur after the punishment, not
instead of it. Animal abusers need and deserve counseling, and I consider it an absolute
necessity if we are to effect a longterm solution to the animal-and-people abuse phenomenon.
But animal abuse is also an inexcusable and heinous crime perpetrated against helpless creatures,
and it deserves swift, exacting, and severe retribution.”
A more formal response came from John Lovell, government relations manager for
the California Peace Officers’ Association and California Police Chiefs’ Association.
“SB1991 is well-intentioned, but its unintended consequence would be to make it
more difficult to successfully incarcerate” violent animal abusers, Lovell wrote. “If the bill
were recast to apply to juveniles only, CPOA and CPCA believe the bill would be worth supporting.
The provisions of the bill that apply to adult felony cruelty convictions, however,
stem from a flawed and outdated assumption––that persons convicted of cruelty are not getting
incarceration time. That may once have been true, but it is no longer.”
Indeed, when ANIMAL PEOPLE produced the first of our series of studies of cruelty
sentencing in 1992, we could find just a few cases––nationwide––in which offenders
actually served jail time. Most cases were plea-bargained; most sentences were suspended.
Our 1996 follow-up found that though cruelty cases were still usually plea-bargained
and settled out of court, much of the time formerly suspended in cases that did get to court
was at last being served: averages of 33 days for horse abuse (with high fines and restitution,
rarely imposed in dog and cat cases), 90 days for torture-killing cats, and 224 days for torture-killing
From mid-May 1996 through mid-May 1998, these averages increased to 205 days
for horse abuse (still with high fines and restitution), 108 days for torture-killing cats, and
228 days for torture-killing dogs.
Sentences appear to be lengthening mainly because plea bargains are much less
often accepted in sadistic abuse cases, where the suffering was inflicted with apparent premeditation.
Bestiality, for instance, was almost inevitably sentenced with just a counseling
order only a few years ago––even when it led to the deaths of the animals. Bestiality now
tends to be treated with the seriousness that violent sex offenses require, as police, prosecutors,
and judges have become aware that this is just what it is. The difference is especially
evident in horse-related sentencing.
Stiffer sentences are also coming because animal defenders, after a century of
effort, have begun winning laws which permit felony cruelty prosecution, in recognition that
cruelty to animals often precedes similar crimes against humans.
“Our concern,” Lovell continued, “is that despite any possible disclaimer language
that might be added to SB1991, defendants who are now being incarcerated for felony cruelty
will be able to escape that punishment when defense counsel argues that the legislature has
created this new law to provide for an ‘alternative approach’ to deal with these types of
crimes. Defense counsel would argue ‘numerous mitigating facts,’ asserting that this was a
‘first-time offense’ (when the reality is that this was the first time the defendant was caught)
and that ‘treatment’ or a ‘program’ would be appropriate.”
Lovell appended to his comments a court transcript in which a defense attorney did
just that—unsuccessfully––under the California felony cruelty law as it stands. The convicted
offender drew three years in prison.
“Ordering counseling is already an option for the judge [as an add-on to any criminal
sentence],” pointed out DeBoer. “If SB1991 passes,” in effect making counseling orders
a mandated sentence in cruelty cases, with everything else an add-on, “no one who viciously
and intentionally mutilates and tortures an animal will ever go to jail again.”
Like Lovell, a close associate, DeBoer argues that SB1991 “should be for juveniles
only. By the time they are adult criminals, it is too late,” she adds. “It is still highly debatable
that counseling works at all. If anyone has evidence that it does, please share that valuable
information with us. How many psychiatrists and psychologists care about protecting animals?
Or know how to effectively counsel the perpetrator of animal abuse?”
Querying several psychologists with an interest in animal protection, and checking
humane literature on criminality, ANIMAL PEOPLE hasn’t found even one study––ever––of
the success of various types of counseling in preventing repeat offenses by persons convicted
of cruelty, and must suspect, after editorially requesting details of successful cruelty prevention
programs from our readership at least once in each of the past four years but getting none,
that there are no such studies because there are no such programs yielding quantifiable results.
This doesn’t mean successful counseling isn’t possible, but it does suggest that no one as yet
knows what it is, or how it works, much less how to make it part of effective sentencing.
DeBoer sent with her critique of SB1991 the records of several serial killers whose
cases the bill proponents cited in their formal arguments for it. Each tortured and killed animals
before killing people. Each evaded significant punishment for cruelty to animals––and
each, also before killing people, passed through a variety of counseling programs.
The banality of evil
Relatively few sadistic animal abusers actually go as far as high-volume homicide.
Most abuser histories more resemble that of one David Lee Edwards, forwarded by Leroy
Moyer of Voices for Pets, in Walnut Creek, California.
Breaking into the Hayward Animal Shelter in February 1994, Edwards allegedly tortured
and killed one cat on the premises, then took that cat’s remains and several live cats,
who according to Moyer, “he planned to torture and kill later at his leisure. Edwards also held
a gun to the head of a witness and threatened to kill her,” Moyer says, “and threatened to kill
the entire family of a 15-year-old whom he was molesting. For these crimes, as result of a
plea bargain that included no jail time, Edwards was in November 1995 placed on probation
and ordered to attend weekly therapy.”
Nearly two years later, as Edwards approached trial for a subsequent shoplifting
arrest, the Alameda County Probation Office “discovered that Edwards had missed half of his
therapy appointments and had not seen a therapist for three months. A probation revocation
hearing on March 26, 1998 was continued to September 1998,” Moyer added, “and Alameda
County deputy district attorney Matthew Golde said that if Edwards receives jail time for
shoplifting, his office will not seek jail time for violating probation.”
Case details vary, but the outcome––a convicted animal abuser still at large,
allegedly menacing humans as well as animals––remains entirely too typical.
Northeastern University sociologist Arnold Arluke and Carter Luke of the
Massachusetts SPCA in August 1997 reported that of 153 violent animal abusers involved in
401 cases, whose behavior they tracked for 10 years, 70% committed other crimes, and 38%
committed crimes of violence. Yet only 15% of the alleged animal abuse cases even got into
court, and only 8% of the perpetrators drew jail time.
Utah State University psychology professor Frank Ascione and graduate student
Claudia Weber recently interviewed 101 female victims of domestic violence, among whom
73 reported that their abuser either threatened or harmed their pets.
Almost all the alleged offenders in both the Arluke/Luke and Ascione/Weber studies
have already been through counseling of many kinds––for trouble at school, substance abuse,
marital difficulties, even child abuse––and many have become adept at feigning repentance.
It is an article of faith among humane workers, from the very beginnings of the
humane movement, that sinners may be redeemed if they repent their deeds sincerely and
choose a different course. Without this faith, there could be no humane movement, as there
could be no hope of ever teaching humanity to be kinder.
Yet it is also characteristic of psychopaths that they exploit the good intentions of
would-be reformers and redeemers, the better to pursue their own twisted ends.
For their part, reformers and redeemers often feel such empathy for the abused and
suffering as to find life unbearable without the hope––offered by psychopaths feigning repentance––that
even the vilest abusers might be redeemed, somehow, through application of the
love and understanding that many abusers did not receive in childhood.
Thus an early goal of the humane movement was abolishing cruel and unusual punishment,
including public hanging, even as criminals often mocked reformers and the law
alike. In place of hanging and other cruelty, humanitarians sought to treat criminality as a
disease, curable by education. Penitentiaries were conceived as places where convicts might
repent, learn a trade, and be released as good citizens.
That approach seemed to better serve society, especially in regards to young offenders,
for whom reform schools were started. At least attempting reform set a better example.
To deter sadism, which even 19th century humane crusaders eventually recognized
as uniquely resistant to treatments that deter other crime, Massachusetts SPCA founder
George Angell advanced humane education. If all children were taught to be kind, toward animals
as well as people, Angell argued, they would not grow up to criminally injure anyone.
But humane education, as Angell conceived it, has never been added to school curriculums––nor
will it be, in the U.S., while animal agriculture and slaughter are exempt from
humane laws in at least 32 states, and all 50 states have tax-funded agencies which chiefly
facilitate recreational wildlife serial-killing.
Until as a society we fully recognize cruelty, and address it in all forms, we have
small chance of inventing either truly effective punishment or therapy for it.
But jail terms for the sorts of abuse that are now illegal will temporarily separate
some sadists from their victims.