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Nicolais: Providing more legal resources to protect animals could help reduce crime against people

Fido and Frisky may enjoy a little more protection in Colorado under a bill recently proposed in the state house.

Not only would the bill bar anyone convicted of criminal cruelty to animals from owning an animal for a set period of years, but it also gives judges leeway to order mental health treatment for defendants.

That’s a win for pets and people alike. How we treat animals is a good indicator of how we treat other humans.

For most of us, abusing any animal — and particularly pets — is either unconscionable or downright unforgivable. Dogs and cats become cherished members of our families. Teddy bear hamsters and guinea pigs teach our children responsibility and kindness.

Mario Nicolais

I have friends whose family includes a wallaby; I have no idea what it does other than incredibly cute things with its hands and keeping up an active social media profile, but they love him.

Similarly, the antics of wild animals in our everyday life can be a source of great enjoyment. Squirrels scrambling over fences; songbirds flitting from tree to tree; even the infestation of rabbits that terrorize my garden every summer usually make me smile as I shoo them away.

Unfortunately, ready access makes animals regular targets for the violent actions of too many people. Whether the result of a one-time outburst or a more insidious long-term pattern, these animals make easy victims. They cannot speak for themselves and they often cannot fight back.

Barring people convicted of criminal animal cruelty from “owning, possessing, caring for, or residing with and animal of any kind” for five to 10 years will reduce access and recidivism. It will reduce pain and suffering and save lives. For all animal lovers, that might be enough reason for the Colorado legislature to take up the bill, HB19-1092.

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The most important provision of the law, though, resides in the authority it grants courts to order a mental health treatment program for defendants. That discretion (or requirement for repeat offenders) makes a critical step toward breaking the link between animal abuse and crime against other people.

Scientific studies demonstrate that people who abuse animals are more than five times as likely to commit violent crimes against other people. These include violent crimes such as assault, battery or domestic abuse. According to the Humane Society, 71 percent of domestic violence victims report that their abuser also targeted pets. That number climbs to 88 percent of families under investigation for suspected child abuse.

The human cost of these crimes tears families apart, destroys lives and burdens the criminal justice system. Anything that can help identify potential problems and provide tools to counteract them should be a welcome proposition. That is particularly true in regard to mental health programs.

Dramatically under-valued for decades, mental health care can provide tools, strategies and coping mechanisms that help abusers from acting out in ways that threaten both the people and animals around them. Learning to deal with the underlying triggers in a safer, healthier manner creates a longer-term solution than even the bill’s ownership bar clause. And it extends to many more circumstances, as well.

While some people may worry that bills like these create an unnecessary intrusion into people’s lives and impose an undue burden, those concerns should be tempered by several provisions included in the bill.

First, the law only applies to individuals charged and convicted of actual animal cruelty — a fraction of the people ever charged, which itself is a fraction of the people reported, which is again a fraction of the actual abuse that takes place every day.

Second, the ability of judges to use their discretion to impose a mental health treatment program for first-time offenders will ensure that the clause won’t be invoked in every case, just those where the circumstances suggest it would be of benefit.

The Colorado legislature would make the state a better place for animals by passing this bill. And they’d make it a better place for the state’s people, too.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq

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