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EDITORIAL: Teens can’t escape legal remedy for cruelty to animals

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Torturing animals, especially pets, is a heinous crime and adults convicted of such offenses usually receive the harsh legal punishment they deserve.

But what about adolescents?

It’s difficult to imagine that a youngster could be so warped as to delight in causing pain to a creature entrusted to his or her care. It is rare for these crimes to occur, yet they do.

Recently, a case of such “horrific” magnitude arrived before the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, in which a 14-year-old boy “tortured” his friend’s dog. We’re not going to recount the gory details. The point is the crime was so disturbing, the Suffolk County district attorney chose to prosecute the boy as an adult under a provision of the state’s youthful offender law.

The justices, naturally, were repulsed by the boy’s actions. However, in the end, they could not legally punish him under the statute. According to the court, the youthful offender law, written and approved by the Legislature more than a decade ago, lacks a provision specifically dealing with acts of animal cruelty.

The court said there are other laws on the books protecting animals, making it clear as to what the Legislature has in mind. But the statute for juveniles is silent.

The first reaction to the ruling is indignation. Were the justices looking for a needle in a haystack to find a flaw? On closer inspection, however, the SJC got this one right.

While the boy’s actions were disturbing, the court had to consider the Legislature’s intent when it crafted the juvenile offender law. Whether an oversight or not, lawmakers failed to craft a provision on the protection of animals.

Justice Elspeth Cypher offered a fix, urging the Legislature to amend the youthful offender statute to include acts of animal cruelty. “If the Legislature wishes to empower prosecutors to respond to similar acts of animal brutality,” wrote Cypher, “it may expand reach of the youthful offender statute and other statutes proscribing violence to better address animal abuse and cruelty in the Commonwealth.”

Cypher stressed the importance as a public policy issue. She said the link between juvenile animal cruelty and later adulthood violence is “well established.”

The Mass. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals issued a statement in support of the court’s legislative recommendation “to ensure that anyone who hams animals is met with justice, regardless of age.”

It’s sad to think that the Legislature has to update the youthful offender law for this reason, yet it is necessary without question. Hopefully, one of our local legislators will file a bill in the upcoming January session and get the ball rolling.

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