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New court to handle misdemeanor animal abuse cases

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Oh, such outrage you folks had when news broke earlier this week that Rex, a canine cop, was stabbed three times in the back and bludgeoned with a bat as the brave and brawny dog was helping his Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department humans take down a violent suspect.

I get that. There’s a special place in hell for those who harm children and animals, I think.

But while those folks remain on earth, that special place is in court.

What happened to Rex – who, I hear, is recovering nicely, thank goodness – constitutes a crime against critters of the more extreme, felonious kind. Those cases are handled at the state district court level.

Metro Court in Albuquerque handles the less serious misdemeanor cases – most of them involving minor, but no less troubling, abuse and neglect offenses, as well as violations of city and county animal ordinances. That would include not having proper licensing, leashes, rabies shots, food and water or shelter, confining an animal on a chain or not confining an animal in a fenced yard. Barking dogs, dangerous dogs, dogs left in cars, too many dogs – all of those violations funnel in to Metro Court.

While some of those violations can be chalked up to accident or ignorance, others may portend more serious issues. Research suggests that such violations may be an indicator or predictor of other forms of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, elder abuse and exploitation in the home.

“It’s not just the welfare of animals sometimes that’s at stake,” Metro Court Judge Rosemary Cosgrove-Aguilar said.

Which is why Cosgrove-Aguilar has agreed to oversee a new specialty court, the latest in a line of Metro Court’s successful intensive pre-prosecution programs, this one dealing with folks accused of committing misdemeanor animal cruelty charges.

The court – cleverly named the Pre-adjudication Animal Welfare program, or PAW – is expected to be up and running some time next month.

PAW is believed to be the second specialty court of its kind in the nation; the first is Pima County Consolidated Justice Court’s Animal Welfare Court in Tucson, Ariz., which heard its first case in 2012 and oversees about 200 cases a year.

“The staffing is ready to go next month. We just need the cases,” Cosgrove-Aguilar said. “Judging from the success of the Tucson court, we’ll get those cases.”

Like other specialty courts, PAW includes intensive treatment and supervision by a team of legal and therapeutic providers, and regular trips before the judge rather than incarceration. For most misdemeanor offenders, it serves as a pre-prosecution diversion – meaning those who successfully complete the program, which runs 16 weeks, serve no jail time and have their charges dismissed.

Specifically, the court will use a treatment and behavior modification program for animal abusers called AniCare that was developed by the Animals and Society Institute and is used by the Tucson court. Courageous Transformations Services in Albuquerque has been contracted by the court to teach the program.

The genesis of PAW began with a project conducted by two of Cosgrove-Aguilar’s former law students, Amber Macias-Mayo and Laura Castille, who delved into the databases of domestic violence defendants and those cited for animal neglect and abuse.

“What they noticed was that the same names were popping up on both databases,” Cosgrove-Aguilar said. “They found correlations between those accused of having dangerous dogs, for example, with those having drug offenses or perhaps a child abuse charge or other acts of domestic violence.”

The findings were in line with what Cosgrove-Aguilar said she often saw in her 10 years as a domestic violence commissioner for the 2nd Judicial District.

“I’ve seen a case where a man threw his ex-wife’s dog out of the car in the canyon on I-40,” she said. “I’ve seen cases where an abused woman will not leave an abusive situation because she has a pet and there is no place of safety, no shelter or relative’s home she can go that will allow her pet. That’s real power an abuser has over a victim. If somebody threatens to kill you, hurt you, it’s not much of a stretch to include your pet in the threat matrix.”

Macias-Mayo and Castille are now practicing attorneys, but have continued to help get PAW on its feet.

The goal of PAW is to provide the tools for offenders to stop re-offending, be it against their pet or a person, and to prevent those more violent crimes that outrage us.

“We are not just washing our hands of these cases with a fine or a jail sentence,” Cosgrove-Aguilar said. “We’re trying to do what’s best to assure that these offenders don’t keep coming back into court with a new crime and potentially a much worse crime.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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