Since the sentencing of Duanying Chen, I have been researching why his jail term was so light, asking questions of experts on animal abuse around the state. I learned that Santa Barbara’s Judge Brian Hill did not act in a vacuum. Not only was Chen’s sentence recommended by two probation officers, but it’s a sentence shaped by the harsh realities of realignment, where the pressure is on to reduce prison overpopulation by imposing sentences that send as many offenders as possible to county jails. And it’s not an untypical sentence in a state that has strong animal cruelty laws, but imposes weak penalties, because legal professionals fail to see the link between animal and human abuse. In other words, although Judge Hill could and absolutely should have imposed the harsher sentence requested by the D.A., his action is reflective of larger failures in California’s legal system. It does not warrant his recall, and it is absolutely unacceptable that he should be harassed or threatened.

In the wake of the sentencing, I called around to experts in the field of animal law, including the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Animal Abuse Coordinator, the Legislative Coordinator of the California Animal Control Officers’ Association, and a senior law enforcement specialist at the Humane Society of the U.S. I wanted to get an idea as to what kind of legislative remedy we might pursue to ensure better sentencing in the future. What I heard was deeply discouraging. The three strikes law long in place here (recently invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court, by the way) means that California’s prisons are overcrowded with nonviolent offenders. The idea of increasing penalties — mandatory minimums for certain kinds of animal cruelty, for example — is a no-go with state legislators at a time when the state is required to reduce inmate populations. Further, light sentences for animal abusers are the norm, especially where the perpetrator is a first-time offender with an otherwise clean record (as was the case with Chen). Worse yet, the recidivism rate among animal abusers is extremely high. Longer sentences may satisfy our need for justice, and they do keep the offender away from animals for the duration of their prison term, but they do nothing to protect animals from future abuse once the offender is released from prison.

What all those experts told me was that the system is not working for animals from start to finish. Animal abuse is not taken as seriously as violence against people; animal abusers who are punished learn nothing in prison and come out only to reoffend. I asked each of them what approach might be viable, and none had a good answer to give, although all were willing and eager to explore the possibilities.

Those who will attend Sunday’s March of Mourning, and those who are promoting a judicial recall, want to see something done — justice for the puppy, Davey, and change in a system that is so flawed. It’s an understandable impulse to assuage their outrage over Davey’s suffering. But if that energy is misdirected against one judge, it misses the point. We need every ounce of energy we can spare as a society to educate people about the right of animals to be free from cruelty, and the need to hold abusers accountable. We cannot afford to squander it with excessive attacks on one individual.


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