YOUNGSTOWN — The mayor and city prosecutor have asked two state representatives to introduce legislation that would elevate certain acts of animal cruelty to a felony charge.
In a letter to Robert F. Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, and Ronald V. Gerberry of Austintown, D-59th, Mayor Jay Williams and City Prosecutor Jay Macejko cite the need for legislation to bring Ohio in line with 45 other states that define certain acts of animal cruelty as a felony or provide felony-level penalties even though an offense is not specifically defined as a felony.
“Sadly, Ohio is in the minority that only provides misdemeanor penalties regardless of the extent of the cruelty,” Macejko said in the letter. He said the goal of bringing Ohio in line with the vast majority of the country could be accomplished by amending the penalty section of the current law.
The letter gives a synopsis of what happened at High Caliber K-9, a kennel that operated on Coitsville-Hubbard Road until October when seven dead and 12 starving dogs were found on the property. Steve Croley, the operator, reached a plea agreement and pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty and began serving a four-month jail sentence Jan. 23.
Macejko noted in the letter that Croley did not face 19 counts due to legal missteps on the part of Animal Charity humane agents. He said the agents who entered the property took the necessary moral, but not the necessary legal, action.
“To be blunt, misdemeanor penalties are not enough for what happened here, regardless of the number of offenses,” Macejko wrote. “The macabre suffering that happened at High Caliber in late October is almost beyond comprehension.”
He said limiting the felony charge to situations where animals die and to businesses that provide kenneling of animals would provide prosecutors “the tools necessary to punish these nefarious deeds.”
The penalty now for first-degree misdemeanor animal cruelty is up to six months in jail. If a fifth-degree felony is added to the law, the penalty would be six months to one year in prison.
Gerberry said he met with the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, the drafting arm for legislation, this past week to discuss amending the existing animal cruelty law to include a fifth-degree felony. He said he should have a draft of the legislation in the next week or two and will ask Macejko to review it and see if it meets his and the mayor’s criteria.
Service commission staff reviews all bills before their introduction in the General Assembly to make certain that each bill is drafted in conformity with required technical standards. The staff also monitors all legislation moving through the General Assembly and attempts to minimize the possibility of technical conflict that could occur if two bills amending the same section of law are enacted during the same session.
Gerberry said the judge should have a little more latitude when it comes to sentencing.
“I don’t want to tie him up where he can’t dispense the penalty that meets the crime,” the state representative said. “I want to give the judge an opportunity to look at a specific case and say maybe it doesn’t meet the level of a felony or it does.”
Gerberry said it was “terrible, unbelievable” what happened to the dogs at High Caliber K-9. “You wonder what he was thinking, I just don’t understand.”
Hopefully, the legislation has a good chance of passing, he said.
The possibility of having Youngstown police cross-trained to deal with humane agent calls is being discussed. Macejko said this past week he remains hopeful that a small number of officers could be cross-trained.
“It appears that the number of such calls is on the increase and, unfortunately, the severity of the offenses appears to be increasing,” the prosecutor said. “At this point, the city is almost entirely dependent upon outside agencies to provide humane services, and the last thing we want to do is overwhelm the existing network.”
Hagan could not be reached.
“It’s about time Ohio says ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ When someone kills an animal they need to be in the [prison] system,” said Dave Nelson, assistant Mahoning County dog warden. “I think it should get support — who would oppose? I know it’s been tried before, but the crimes are more violent now.”
He said if the law passes it will be a win-win situation, another tool to use to punish deliberately cruel acts. There have been countless times, he said, when animals died and the felony punishment would have applied.