Thursday, March 11, 2010

Revisiting the California Animal Abuse Registry

I want to revisit California's proposed Animal Abuse Registry. I wrote about this previously and have been thinking about it more. The first hearing will occur in April, if you care.

I've been researching more about the sex offender registry, which is invariably mentioned when the animal abuse registry is discussed. My suggestion to those who wish to encourage support of an animal abuse registry would be better served by not comparing it to the sex offender registry.

Sex offender databases do not work. They are based on a false premise: Sex offenders comprise a large percentage of crimes and are more likely to re-offend than other criminals. This is untrue.

I found information from this report interesting. A study examined the demographics of sex offenders in Arkansas. They found 97% of offenders were male, 75% white, aged 30-69 and most were state residents. The majority were "first-time" offenders (first crime or first time caught). During the same period, another researcher looked at how the media portrayed sex offenders. Between 1991-1998, there was a 128% increase in coverage of "sex crimes". The media portrayed sex offenders as male, in their 30s, compulsive and nearly always pedophiles or committing acts of depravity against children. This does not align with actual demographic makeup of sex offenders.

Guess where policymakers and the public received most of their information on sex offenses? The media. Public policy makers actually admitted to using the media as a source for why sex offender registries were important.

The rub: While there was a 128% increase in media coverage of sex offenses, there was no discernible increase in actual sex crimes. Sex offenders comprised 1.2% of criminal charges and the number of sex offenders remained stable during the study period. Sex offenders weren't (and aren't) more likely to re-offend. They show a lower rate of recidivism than for any other criminal offense. And while the media reported a seemingly bizarre high rate of sexual deviancy involving children, most sex offenses were (are) committed against adults. Those who did commit crimes against children were even less likely to re-offend than those who committed crimes against adults (one exception being child pornographers).

This reminds me of the media portrayal of Pit Bulls and how that has shaped public policy. In the both cases, the media created a larger problem than existed. Let me be clear, I am NOT saying there isn't a problem with sex offenders. There is an undeniable problem with violating the rights and personhood of another human being. I am also not saying that nothing should be done to protect people or prosecute offenders.

But! The actual crimes committed, the rate of recidivism, the actual proportion of people committing these crimes were far different than reported. The media shaped public policy in a way that ended up being  pointless, yet long-lasting. When you think "sex offender", what image do you conjure up? Who is the victim? Who is the offender? Do you think of a man who preys upon children? For example, when I told my mom about the lack of evidence showing higher recidivism rates amongst sex offenders, she didn't believe me. She's a very intelligent person who I admire deeply but who is also a mother and, during the early 90s, a watcher of the nightly news on a regular basis. It is not surprising that her perspective regarding sex offenders would be so entrenched and, objectively, inaccurate.

Sex offender databases do not improve public safety or reduce recidivism. At all. They don't work, but the media made a case for the databases and also made a case that all of our children were at high risk of being predated on by sexual deviants, which wasn't and isn't true.

For one overview of the literature on sex offender databases and registration rules, here's an article. There's stuff that conflicts with other research I found, but I think it's useful and also fair to include.

Back to California Animal Abuse Registry. Sex offenders, as a general class of criminals, have a low recidivism rate. That is, many do not repeat their crimes. Some do, of course, egregiously so (and obviously, all occur in places where databases exist).But what about animal abusers, as a class of criminals? Are they really comparable to sex offenders, in terms of likelihood of repeat offenses?

I propose they are not the same and that if proponents of this registry want to sell it better, they should stop comparing it to the ineffective and, really, incomparable sex offender registries.

Florez's bill would apply to those convicted of felony level animal abuse. This encompasses a variety of crimes against animals. Hoarders would be included. Dog fighters too, maybe even cockfighters (cockfighting is a wobbler crime in California - you can be charged with a misdemeanor or felony). Someone who shoots animals might be included as might someone who couldn't afford veterinary care that led to the egregious suffering of a dog or cat. I imagine agriculture will be exempt from this bill - you'd be slapped with a felony for doing what many producers do to farmed animals if you did it to a cat or dog, but since it's standard practice, they'll seek an exemption stat.

Animal hoarders have a high recidivism rate, sometimes as high as 100%. There are few laws specifically addressing animal hoarding. This is a good report on the state of animal hoarding laws and the problem with labels. Animal hoarding is not a money-making endeavor. It is not performed to improve machisimo points. It is, in fact, the symptom of a disturbed person often with significant psychological problems. It is more than someone who just loves animals too much. The Animal Hoarding Research Consortium produced a report on hoarding that is worth reading about the different types of hoarders and suggestions on how to deal with them.

Their conclusion is that traditional models, which emphasize criminalization, are not helpful. I think that animal hoarders would be better served with a private registry that would be made available to animal welfare agencies (which would have to be defined, of course), animal control, law enforcement and other pertinent agencies. Employees or volunteers could follow up with hoarders, check on them regularly or semi-regularly without negatively impacting one agencies staff or ability to perform all job functions. Checking in on animal hoarders is a good idea, because they have a nearly 100% recidivism rate, but I do not think the general public should be patrolling the neighborhood and engaging with people who may have a skewed vision of the world or have severe mental health problems. I don't think that would actually happen with an animal abuse registry - it did not really happen with the sex offender registry, but perhaps people find sexual abuse less provocative than animal abuse. I think it could be a tool, not a solution to animal hoarding, which requires more serious intervention than random house checks.

This provides a bit of an overview of who hoards and some recidivism rates which range from 60-100%, far, far, far higher than sexual offenders.

I do not know of any survey studying recidivism rates of dog or cock fighters. The payoffs of fighting are high - you can earn a lot of money quickly. Of course, the cons are loss of an entire group of profitable animals and imprisonment. Conviction rates are also high, between 85-98%, depending. I also do not know recidivism rates for other animal abuse crimes.

Personally, I do not believe a registry will improve animal welfare, but because these are not the same types of crimes tracked in other databases (sex offense and arson), I could be wrong. is already in existence and tracks animal-related crimes. It's pretty extensive. Let me repeat, it's already in existence. The wheel's there, running pretty smoothly. Plus, no one's dog food has to be taxed. Which, by the way, I do not believe is going to negatively impact dog guardians on fixed incomes. The proposed tax is 2-3 cents per pound - on a 30lb bag of dog food, that is 0.90, for a 60lb bag, it's a $1.80. If you go through 240 lbs of dog food a month (and whoa if you do!), that's an additional $7.20. Most dog owners do not go through that much dog food and their monthly tax would be lower. But, I do not think it is a wise use of taxation, because there is no clear evidence an animal abuse registry would, in fact, improve animal welfare. I would support a private database, especially for checking in on animal hoarders.

What do you think?


Luisa said...

One thing about the whole registry concept that worries me, and worries smart folks like Radley Balko, is that people are listed [and stigmatized] who represent no danger to society at all.

And as we all know, the registry doesn't prevent the rare but truly dangerous repeat-offenders from striking again.

I think the whole idea of a animal-abusers registry sucks hugely. The tax, in our case, would "only" be 40 or so dollars a year, but I'd much rather have that go to schools or infrastructure improvement rather this boondoggle.

Man, the HSUS lobbyists sure found their patsy in Florez [shakes head in disappointment].

Unknown said...

@Luisa: I think sex offender registries have failed in many ways and public registries should be discarded completely.

There is a program in Jersey for high risk offenders. They wear a GPS bracelet. It's not meant for most offenders but only those deemed at the highest risk of re-offending. It works really well (only 1 out of 128 has re-offended and, well, he didn't have much defense what with the tracker data and all). I am not suggesting that for 95% of sex offenders, but it tentatively works for the ones most likely to re-offend.

The bill, btw, isn't an HSUS bill but probably an ALDF bill. I love ALDF, but I think they are misguided on this one. HSUS has expressed concerns w/ the tax portion of the bill.

Luisa said...

"Symbolic politics."