Several challenges are common to the criminal justice system response to animal abuse. These include the likelihood that defendants will be charged with misdemeanors rather than felonies, the low priority assigned to these cases by the criminal justice system, failure to take the cases seriously, and the discretion of prosecutors to drop prosecution of misdemeanor cases due to resources and other issues (Animal Legal Defense Fund, n.d.). Other factors further complicate the prosecution of animal abuse cases, including prosecutors having little experience with such cases and reliance on law enforcement officers to gather sufficient evidence, particularly given that the victim in these cases cannot speak.
As awareness has grown of the importance of taking animal abuse seriously, specialty courts designed to handle animal cruelty cases are beginning to appear. The Animals & Society Institute is working to provide resources to these courts (e.g., AniCare), track their development, and share lessons learned. If you know of an animal welfare court that is not currently listed here, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Animal Welfare Court, Pima County, Arizona
Pima County Justice of the Peace Maria Felix recognized the need for a better way to handle animal-related cases in the county. In 2012 Judge Felix worked with the County Attorney’s Office, Justice Court staff, Pima Animal Care Center Officers, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Pima county Sheriff’s Department, and defense attorneys to create the country’s first Animal Welfare Court. The court handles misdemeanor cases involving animals.
Defense attorneys and a deputy Pima County attorney are assigned to the court. Defendants who are convicted may receive fines, probation, and jail time. They are also referred for assessment and treatment. Two intervention and treatment programs are offered by Perceptions Counseling. A.C.E. (Animal Cruelty Education) is a four-hour program focused on educating the defendant about responsible care of animals. A.T.O.P (Animal Treatment Offender Program) is a group treatment program based on ASI’s AniCare model. Based on the intake assessment, defendants are required to complete anywhere from 16 to 52 90-minute sessions. Updates on defendants’ participation in the programs and progress are provided regularly to the court.
Pre-Adjudication Animal Welfare Court (PAW), Bernalillo County, New Mexico
Modeled on the Animal Welfare Court in Pima County, Arizona, PAW was launched May 1, 2016. The court was conceived by attorneys Laura Castille and Amber Macias-Mayo following two years of research that began while the two were in law school. They reviewed approximately 40,000 animal control complaints in Albuquerque in 2014 and found that many calls involving an “aggressive dog at large” also involved people with prior convictions for other crimes, including assault, aggravated DWI, and child abuse. Of note, all of the cases were dismissed.
Like the Animal Welfare Court in Arizona, misdemeanor cases are referred to PAW. However, unlike the Arizona court, PAW defendants are offered the option of diversion. If they surrender their pets and successfully complete a 16-week psychosocial therapy program based on AniCare, their charges are dismissed. Additional therapy may also be ordered. Courageous Transformations currently provides the therapy program, and the court currently hears cases once per week.
Animal Court, Botetourt County, Virginia
In late June 2016, Botetourt County, Virginia, launched an Animal Court, which involves collaboration among the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, General District Court, Sheriff’s Department, and Angels of Assisi. Under the new court, all animal cruelty trials will be held on one day every quarter. As the court evolves, they hope add an education component. More information coming soon!