California State Senator Dean Florez has proposed creating an ‘abuser registry’ for serious crimes involving animal cruelty. If it becomes law, this bill would place animal abusers on par with sex offenders and require the publication of abusers’ names, photographs, addresses, and other information. A draft copy of the proposed bill can be found here.
The proposed bill was drafted with assistance from the Animal Legal Defense Fund and is intended to both notify the public about such abusers and to help prevent further crimes. Stephan Otto, the ALDF’s director of legislative affairs had this to say:
We know there’s a link between those who abuse animals and those who perform other forms of violence. Presumably if we’re able to track animal abusers and be able to know where they live, there will be less opportunity where those vulnerable to them would be near them.
Similar bills have been introduced in Tennessee, Colorado, and Rhode Island. For more information about these initiatives and animal abuse registries generally, see the ALDF Expose Animal Abusers webpage. See also The National Animal Abuse Registry.
These developments are quite relevant to New Zealand given that the government has recently proposed increased penalties for the Animal Welfare Act. Agricultural Minister David Carter has said ‘Increasing incidences of animal cruelty are horrifying many New Zealanders and the National Government wants to see stronger measures in place to deal with this issue.’ (See Vernon Tava’s discussion of these increases here). Indeed, the Ministry of Agricultre and Forestry reports that ‘during the last 30 years, evidence has been accumulating of a link between animal abuse and violence to humans, or anti-social behaviour.’ Animal abuse is a serious problem in New Zealand. Ought animal abusers be put on a national registry?
Two things are notable about the proposed state registries overseas. First, such registries signal that the prison system has failed. Sending someone to prison is supposed to begin a process of rehabilitation and correction – this is why the department of prisons is called ‘corrections’. If the individuals released from prison are not rehabilitated or corrected and require constant monitoring, then why are they being let out of prison?
Second, along with the aim of rehabilitation prison sentences also are intended to punish. It is said that upon release prisoners have paid their debt to society. But, if ex-cons are kept on a registry after their release, this would suggest that the prisoners’ penance is not yet paid, that there is still some wrongdoing for which they must atone. Keeping lists of undesirables is decidedly punitive, especially considering that once you’re on the list, there’s no getting off of it.
Animal abuse registries may actually be an excuse for lenient sentences. Instead of making prisoners serve their time and be rehabilitated, prisoners get an early release while the cost of looking after these criminals is externalised onto society at large. The prisoner never is able to outlive their offending, and has no ability to become a productive member of society. Society in turn continues to expect that their department of corrections neither adequately punishes nor corrects the prisoners in their charge.
Animal abuse registries also selectively penalise only certain forms of animal abuse. Yes, Wayne Williams, who beat a dog to death should have been punished severely. But what about the farmers who brutalise thousands of pigs in sow stalls? And the thousands of battery hens kept imprisoned for our cheap eggs?
On the whole, I think these registries are necessary and a good idea because they may prevent animal abusers from owning and abusing further animals. These registries are, at best, a stop-gap solution, however, and do not address the system failings of prisons. We should also examine the social construction of animal abuse and why only certain forms of animal abuse are seen as more worthy of punishment than others.