Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Parole Denied to Man Who Torched Dog in Alabama, Speaks to Bigger Penal Problem

In 2007, angered that his mother wouldn't let him drive the car, Juan Daniels took his frustration and anger out on his mother's dog, a 6-yr-old Pit Bull.

He proceeded to pour lighter fluid over the dog, lit him on fire and beat him with a shovel. Amazingly, the dog survived and didn't hold any grudges.

Animal cruelty has only been in a felony in Alabama since 1994. Few people have been convicted of felony-level animal abuse in the state. Daniels would be the first to receive an extremely stiff penalty - 9 years in prison. He was sentenced in 2009 and went up for parole recently. The dog, Louis Vuitton, was present for the hearing, wagging his tail and bestowing kisses to anyone who would receive them. His extensive scarring served as a reminder to the torture and suffering he endured. Daniels' parole was denied 3-0. He will be up for parole in 2012.

There is certainly a level of satisfaction animal lovers feel over this sentencing. Too often people commit egregious acts of cruelty against companion animals* and suffer little in the way of consequences. You need only read about the recent 90 day sentencing of Jerry Lee Southern. He starved dogs to death and chained more than a 100 up without adequate housing, nutrition or water. There is a stark inconsistency with how law enforcement deals with animal cruelty issues - sometimes they go to one extreme, most times they don't even bother prosecuting.

I am not partial to our penal system. It sets people up for failure and does not serve to redeem most who pass through. That is not to say there are people who should be behind bars - there most assuredly are. I might even qualify someone who reacts to the mundane denial of a borrowed car by beating and setting on fire a dog as one who should not only spend time behind bars but who is in desperate need of anger management therapy. There are people who are beyond redemption. I don't know if Daniels is one of those people nor am I qualified to offer an opinion on that particular issue.

Regardless, the one most powerful thing I've learned in dog training is to never, ever set a dog up for failure. Yet we do that to our fellow humans with an inordinately expensive legal system that is racist and classist in scope. Do I think Daniels should be in prison? Until he has proven himself able to manage his rage and misdirected anger appropriately, yes. Do I believe there is a determinate figure of time? No. Do I think he will get the treatment needed? Unlikely.

We have a failed system. I am unsure why so few understand that. Perhaps it is the primal fear of those who do not abide by a moral and legal code of ethics the rest of us do (and arguably some of those "ethics" are questionable, like California's 3-strike law and the rampant criminalization of minor drug use). Still, it is hard to argue against the high rates of recidivism and the egregious cost of running our system. I feel this more acutely living in a state in which the average cost per prisoner - a cost I help pay for - is twice the national average. And even the national average is only a little less than my take-home pay! In California, it costs nearly $50,000 to care for an inmate, nationally it's about $30,000. It's not just California, either. And it's not just the cost, it's the crimes - while violent crime has diminished, the prison population rate has increased. Most people in prison are there for non violent crimes, including minor drug use or low-level drug dealing. We spend nearly $70 billion annually on the current federal and state penal system.

So I can't help but, in some small way, sympathize with Daniels family. Not because I think they are right, that Daniels should just get to "move on with his life", but because we have a system that penalizes without rehabilitation. When it comes to the prosecution of crimes against animals, the system is even more off-kilter, with few prosecutions and convictions. There is a good chance Daniels isn't getting therapy. There is a good chance Daniels isn't being taught skills that translate into real-world opportunities. We have a system that puts people behind bars but gives them no valuable means to go beyond and get better. We also have a system that generally doesn't penalize people like Daniels, those who abuse animals, and generally focuses its efforts on "victimless" crimes. Animal abuse is more far-reaching, more likely to transcend the species barrier than stealing a bike or smoking pot (two crimes that will get you closer to 3-strikes and a mandatory 15-yr prison term in California).

I'm not sure what the answer is, except to seriously reduce our prison inmate population and focus more on programs that stimulate meaningful change for those who violate our laws. We claim to want to give 2nd chances, yet we deny them so easily to people who don't pass muster. Our system fails people like Daniels and ultimately, fails us and other animals. What is to stop Daniels from reacting inappropriately and cruelly in the future if his mental health and ability to deal with real-world annoyances are severely in question AND, more importantly, aren't treated/modified? We cannot justify keeping him in prison for his entire life, for human ethics alone, but I am left questioning how we can justify denying him parole without doing anything to set him up for success. Daniels deserves that. Louis Vuitton, the dog, deserves that. Any future person or animal who interacts with Daniels and people like him deserve that too.

What do you think?

*For ease of this particular discussion, I am focusing on traditional companion animals, particularly dogs.

Photo credit: (AP Photo/Montgomery Advertiser, David Bundy) (David Bundy - AP)

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