Last year, Butler County Common Pleas Judge Greg Stephens told a crowded courtroom before sentencing a woman for three counts of felony animal cruelty that he was restricted by the law.
The judge explained that the woman didn’t have a previous conviction and, by statute, animal cruelty is not considered a violent offense — two factors that would permit a prison sentence on the low felony.
The woman was placed on probation, along with other sanctions, and she also was ordered to serve 60 days in the county jail.
“If you disagree with that,” he said, “feel free to contact your state legislator.”
The issue of felony animal cruelty charges was in the spotlight last week as David Neanover, 36, of Reily Twp., had his bond set at $25,000 on a felony charge of animal cruelty after a dog of his was found severely emaciated with open wounds and later died. Protesters were outside the courthouse before the heading showing support for the dog that died.
After several non-prison sentencings for animal cruelty under the state’s new law that can make the crimes low-level felonies, prosecutors and judges have faced pressure from the community to seek harsh punishments. Many have been disappointed in the results, but legal officials said the sentencing guidelines simply don’t allow the kinds of sentences that passionate advocates want.
Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell said he once received a message that he should seek the death penalty for a defendant charged with animal cruelty. He sometimes doesn’t hear that even in cases involving children.
“But if it is an animal,” he said, “people are outside with pitch forks.”
Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser, whose legal team has collected four felony animal cruelty convictions, agreed.
“I have seen more tears shed in court for the animal than the human,” he said.
The charge of cruelty to a companion animal had been a first-degree misdemeanor for years, with a maximum sentence of 180 days. Now it can be classified as a fifth-degree felony in certain cases — usually when there is a prior charge of abuse or extreme cruelty, according to Gmoser.
The maximum penalty is up to 12 months in prison for a fifth-degree felony, but by law that is rare, whether for a drug charge or animal cruelty.
For a judge to send a person to prison for a fifth-degree felony, by law, the defendant has to meet certain criteria, such as prior felony convictions, a firearm being involved, the defendant holding office or a position of trust or the victim suffering serious physical harm.
“They (defendant) have to meet the requirements for prison time,” Gmoser said, “If it is not a sex case or an assault or the person doesn’t have a significant prior record, that (prison) just can’t happen on a fifth-degree felony.
Judges do have the ability to sentence a convicted felony animal abuser to up to six months in the county jail. In the Butler County cases, most have spent some time incarcerated, either awaiting trial or sentencing.
“Animals by law are property. Assault applies to humans. Doesn’t mean you can’t be charged with cruelty, but it is not considered a crime of violence,” Gmoser said.
Both Gmoser and Fornshell said harming and killing of animals often leads to violence against humans later in life, so prosecution is a must. But sentencing is up to the judges
Meg Melampy of Middletown animal rescue group Joseph’s Legacy agrees.
“We understand it is the law that needs to he changed, however in cases that animals have been tortured, judges can punish them more, up to six month in jail,” she said. “It is making it difficult because the way the law is written. We are trying to explain it to people, yet we are trying to change it too.”