A few years back, Pima County Justice of the Peace Maria Felix remembers presiding over an animal abuse case so horrendous, she wanted to cry.
She also remembers being frustrated that prosecutors didn't seek jail time for that offender.
Felix shared her thoughts with others, and soon the idea to start a specialty court, not unlike Mental Health Court and Domestic Violence Court, came up.
In specialty courts, a core group of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys become experts in one area of the law. They become ultra familiar with the relevant statutes, the underlying reasons behind the crimes and the best way to punish and rehabilitate those who commit the crimes.
Having the same players involved in the same kind of cases week after week guarantees continuity in the way cases are resolved and defendants are punished.
Much to Felix's surprise, she couldn't find one court in the U.S. that specialized in animal abuse cases. She found stories about how various courts were handling animals in divorce cases, but none about animals that had been abused.
That didn't stop her or the Pima County Attorney's Office.
Over the last several months, Felix and others interested in putting together such a court, including Deputy Pima County Attorneys Kathleen Mayer and Kendrick Wilson, researched the various types of animal abuse cases.
They found a treatment and behavior modification program for animal abusers called AniCare, that was developed by the Animals & Society Institute, and contracted with Perception Counseling to teach it.
They also agreed that instead of unsupervised probation, which has typically been the case, convicted animal abusers will now face supervised probation or jail time. In addition, instead of going to classes on how to care for animals, they must go to the intervention program.
Last month, Felix presided over the first Animal Welfare Court.
Three defendants attended the session, which will be held once a month. Another four defendants made court appearances this month.
The way it works is this: When someone is arrested on misdemeanor animal-related charges, the Pima County Attorney's Office will determine if the case is appropriate for Animal Welfare Court.
Once they're in Animal Welfare Court, since prosecutors are more likely to seek jail time, they will be appointed an attorney, which most misdemeanor defendants don't get. After they are either convicted or accept a plea agreement, sentencing will include participation in AniCare classes. The counselors at Perception Counseling will determine just how long they must attend, Felix said.
The length of the class will depend upon the circumstances of each case, Felix said.
Kellie Johnson, chief criminal deputy county attorney, said she is hopeful more oversight will translate into fewer repeat offenders and fewer offenders who graduate to felony animal abuse.
"We're going to identify the most serious cases and be more hands-on, more intensive," Johnson said. "There will be a lot more supervision and more judicial oversight."
Felix said she's discovered through her research there are many reasons why animals are abused and neglected. Some defendants are hoarders; others hurt their pets during a domestic violence incident. Some are substance abusers, mentally ill or psychopaths. Still others might be running puppy mills.
She expects to see cases from the Pima Animal Care Center and the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.
Mark Hart, public information officer for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, said his department is excited about the new court.
"This will allow one judge to become familiar with the nuances of the cases," Hart said. "Our rules and regulations are not as commonly used as traffic violations."
He expects his department will refer cases involving people who have illegally taken the life of a wild animal, for sport or for food.
Jose Chavez, enforcement operations manager for the Pima Animal Care Center, said he expects to see better prepared attorneys and harsher sentences.
"All of the officers here are pretty excited about it and are glad it's taking place," Chavez said.
Although the program isn't "etched in stone" yet, Felix said she's already gotten calls from courts in Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Massachusetts inquiring about it.
"It's a work in progress," Felix said. "We're going to meet every six months to change, modify, add or delete things."