Animal abusers may soon have to register on a statewide list, thanks to a new bill that has been introduced to the Missouri House of Representatives.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol would be required to post a list of people convicted of an animal abuse offense. It would include the offender’s photo, legal name and any other information the Patrol considers important.
This registry would work similarly to a sex offender registry, except “not as restrictive,” said Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, who is sponsoring the bill.
For example, the sex offender registry keeps a record of the offender’s address, and an offender stays on the registry for 15 years to life, depending on the gravity of the crime.
A first-time offender would stay on the registry for two years and then be removed, provided there are no additional animal abuse offenses. If there are, the name will be there for another five years. An offender’s address would also not be available.
House Bill 44 was introduced Dec. 3, with a proposed effective date of Aug. 28. Right now, no further hearings have been scheduled to discuss the bill.
HB 44 would also increase the penalty for animal abuse from a class A misdemeanor to a class E felony. A class A misdemeanor includes crimes such as some cases of credit card fraud, while class E felonies include some cases of domestic abuse.
Burnett said that it makes sense to her that animal abuse would be in a class E category.
“I did have some reservation about increasing the charge to a felony, because a felony offense is a serious offense and it affects peoples lives,” Burnett said.
But 71 percent of domestic abuse cases also include pets being targeted, according to a survey by the Humane Society of the United States.Women entering domestic violence shelters often report that pets were either abused or killed as well, Burnett said.
“If we use this as a mechanism to identify earlier, before there’s domestic violence, before there’s a serious criminal offense, I think that’s a good tool.” Burnett said. “If we identify it at that stage, we have the opportunity to do some appropriate intervention.”
The National Sheriff’s Association agrees. A 2014 issue of Deputy and Court Officer said that “animal abusers are five times more likely to commit crimes against people, four times more likely to commit property crimes, and three times more likely to have a record for drug or disorderly conduct offenses.”
This isn’t the first time bills have been filed to enact more serious consequences for animal abuse. Burnett introduced HB 1418 in January 2018, along with co-sponsors Reps. Gina Mitten, D-St. Louis, and Richard Brown, D-Kansas City.
HB 1418 would have made animal abuse a class E felony, which the current bill, HB 44, also asks.
Former Rep. Keith English, I-Florissant, introduced HB 1707 in 2016. HB 1707 would have established an animal abuse registry.
But 1707 didn’t pass, and 1418 was referred to Crime Prevention and Public Safety, where it died in committee.
“They just didn’t get the kind of attention some of the bigger issues on the agenda did,” Burnett said.
Burnett said some animal protection groups have begun to show support of the new bill, which may help it get passed.
“There really is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for this,” Burnett said. “With that kind of enthusiasm, this is a good time to get this issue out there.”
One of these animal protection organizations is Jungle Law Group. Jungle Law Group, led by attorneys Tristen Woods and Lauren Kruskall, is a bipartisan effort to enact an animal abuse registry in Missouri.
Jungle Law put up a website for people to sign HB 1418. The group received over 3,000 signatures in the first week the website was active. The number of signatures on the bill now is up to five figures, Kruskall said.
Made up of lawyers dealing with animal abuse cases, Jungle Law thought it could make a difference in getting the bill passed.
“We have clients calling us all the time with animal cases,” Kruskall said.
But since laws for animal abuse and human abuse are so different, sometimes its hands are tied.
“People get frustrated because they see this animal abuse being committed on the news, on Facebook, and they’re like, ‘Why isn’t anything changing?’” Kruskall said. “And we thought that this law would give people a chance to see a real change.”
Kruskall said that Jungle Law feels the bill is one that people on both sides of the political spectrum can support.
“We’re hoping that since there’s just so many wins for everybody if this law gets passed, that it will actually come to fruition this year,” she said.
The bill would be a good safety precaution for the community as a whole, Kruskall said.
“If felons who are convicted of animal abuse are going to be on a registry, they’re going to be held accountable and potentially shamed publicly, which is something we’re excited about,” Kruskall said.
Jungle Law has heard positive feedback about the bill from animal rescue groups, Kruskall said.
“They do as best as they can, but it can be challenging to screen adopters,” Kruskall said. “This is a chance for them to run a really quick search and be able to see right off the bat if somebody would not be a suitable home for a pet.”
The Humane Society Legislative Fund of Missouri is having an event with Burnett to raise awareness about the new bill Jan. 24 at Bar K in Kansas City.
“It would be a really big deal for Missouri to be one of the leaders in this,” Kruskall said.
In 2016, Tennessee passed a law that created an animal abuse registry. It was the first, and currently only, statewide law in the U.S. As of Jan. 3, 2019, there are only 15 people on Tennessee’s registry.
Leslie Earhart, a public information officer for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said in an email that it was important to note that first-time offenders are only on the registry for two years after conviction.
“Not every cruelty case qualifies for inclusion,” Earhart said. “In some cases, an individual may be charged with aggravated cruelty but end up entering a plea agreement for a lesser charge.”
While Tennessee has the only statewide registry right now, some counties in New York have followed suit. Suffolk County, Niagara County, Albany County and New York County are among them. But they have a problem similar to Tennessee: There aren’t very many people on the lists.
For example, Suffolk County — which, after being established in 2010, is the oldest existing registry — has just 17 offenders on the list as of this month.
There are some groups that think there are better strategies to combat animal abuse than a registry.
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is one of them.
An official statement on the ASPCA website lists reasons why it thinks animal abuse registries aren’t as effective as some existing strategies.
One concern is the high cost of creating and maintaining these registries. A registry proposed in Virginia in 2011 had an estimated fiscal impact of around $1 million, according to ASPCA’s website.
Burnett wasn’t sure how much the Missouri registry would cost to implement.
“Usually what happens is we don’t get a fiscal analysis until the bill gets a hearing,” she said.
Another one of the ASPCA’s concerns is that animal abuse registries just aren’t effective enough. Registries such as those of Suffolk County or even the entire state of Tennessee show that participation is low.
It’s also possible that the existence of a registry and the increase from misdemeanor to felony would decrease prosecution of animal abuse cases. Felonies may be pled down to misdemeanors to avoid being registered, according to the organization’s website.
That may be a reason for the small number of offenders listed on Tennessee’s registry, Earhart said.
Jungle Law said that it understands that concern.
“I definitely understand any hesitation,” Kruskall said. “We’d like to get language in place where they could not be pled down in certain instances. That would guarantee that people wouldn’t be able to plead down, and it would have to be considered a felony.
“I know it may not be perfect,” Kruksall said, “but we’re just looking to take steps in the right direction.”