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For Wanton Cruelty, Punishment Or Redemption?

air rifle on table
Example of a pellet rifle. Photo by Andrew Ratto.

“A person who would kill a puppy” can serve as shorthand for someone especially cruel, in fiction or in real life. But when the act is real, it raises the question: What sort of punishment does that sort of cruelty merit?

In Davie, Florida, a Chihuahua puppy named Princess recently died after she was struck by fire from a pellet rifle during a walk. The police arrested 19-year-old Johansen Concepcion De La Ros for allegedly shooting the dog. Concepcion De La Ros contends that he had been shooting toward a lake from an apartment balcony, and that Princess walking into his line of fire was purely an accident. A friend who witnessed the incident contends the shooting was deliberate.

Either way, an 8-year-old girl lost her pet, just two days after moving to Florida with her mother.

The police charged Concepcion De La Ros with animal cruelty, a third-degree felony that carries a potential penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. If he is convicted, I wouldn’t dispute that the defendant deserves at least that much punishment.

But then what? Concepcion De La Ros would be an ex-con, no older than 24, with a history of wanton cruelty. Such behavior often correlates with domestic abuse, but it may point to the perpetrator’s victimhood at some level as well. I don’t know what makes someone do what Concepcion De La Ros is charged with doing, but I am pretty sure it must have been something, and something pretty bad at that. Such behavior does not come from thin air.

This is not to downplay the seriousness of animal cruelty. Animal abuse is terrible on its own, but law enforcement agencies have recently shown increased interest in tracking these incidents because such behavior can predict or even contribute to wider patterns of domestic violence. The FBI began collecting animal abuse data in 2016, though in many states little if any data has been reported so far. One obstacle to wider reporting is that many animal control officers are not classified as law enforcement, and only law enforcement agencies report to the FBI. (Note that the linked document contains potentially upsetting images of animal abuse.) Still, agencies are showing a greater understanding of the seriousness of this sort of behavior.

But while animal cruelty charges are serious, it is still worth considering an alleged perpetrator’s age and history, as well as other contributing factors (as it is with other similarly serious charges). First-time offenders, especially, may be able to change course with sufficient help. That is why, like many places nationwide, Broward County has a pretrial diversion program for first-time felony offenders. Those charged with most third-degree felonies, including animal cruelty, are eligible to apply.

Under this program, Concepcion De La Ros would avoid a trial and, potentially, a guilty plea, and thus a criminal record if he doesn’t otherwise have one. He would have to make full restitution, as well as meeting other conditions set by the program. He would essentially be on probation for a year, and if he completed that period successfully, the charge would be dismissed and would not appear on his record. Whatever could be done to address his underlying problems and try to prevent him from becoming a future violent offender would arguably have a better chance of succeeding than would incarceration. And he would be spared the challenges facing ex-felons, such as trying to secure a job or regain his right to vote.

If this case had not made the news, I suspect it might have ended up in pretrial intervention, or PTI, as we call it in Broward County. Instead, the publicity and particularly painful aspects of this case may make this outcome less likely. That would be a shame.

Nothing is going to bring that puppy back, or ease that little girl’s pain, or erase her mother’s memory of watching an innocent animal die during what was supposed to be an ordinary walk. But there are more lives hanging in the balance over how this case is resolved. A 19-year-old who uses a puppy for target practice surely deserves punishment, but without knowing anything else about him, I am not willing to say he is beyond redemption. What is more important?

A puppy’s life has value, but a young man’s future, and that of whatever family he may have in the years to come, must be worth at least that much. In this case, I would err on the side of redemption.

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