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Pennsylvania’s Non-Profit Problem

Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized

Pennsylvania loves non-profit organizations.  I’m not sure it has to as much to do with the work we accomplish as much as it has to do with the fact that by doing that work we allow the Commonwealth to avoid doing it themselves.  Despite having stacks of laws and regulations on the books, which presumably someone thought addressed problems important enough to write, pass and sign them into law, many of these go largely unenforced by Pennsylvania.

I’ll give you an example.  For a couple years I worked for a watershed conservancy.  As you can imagine, there are lots of regulations and laws addressing water quality and the environment, as there should be.  Yet this conservancy did more watershed conservation and recovery than the State in that watershed.  They responded to complaints about violations and trained developers in how to avoid damaging the waterways.  You might think that if these regulations were important enough to write, the governmental resources would be there to enforce them.  Largely, they were not, and the burden and the cost to do so fell on the conservancy, its staff and volunteers, and its donors.

Sound familiar?  It should.  The same basic problem exists in the area of animal cruelty in Pennsylvania, except in this area there was an open acknowledgement of the fact that the government was shirking its duties and the law was changed to explicitly “allow” animal shelters to enforce the law.  By allow I mean dump the unfunded job into our laps while we thanked them for the pleasure.

Many people are not aware of the fact that although any municipal or State Police officer can enforce Pennsylvania’s anti-cruelty laws, most do not.  That’s why about twenty years ago the legislature wrote a law that permits trained and sworn Humane Society Police Officers to enforce the section of the PA crime code addressing cruelty, as long as the crime is a summary offense.  Misdemeanor and higher require action by the County DA.  The law requires about 80 hours of training, that you are attached to a “real” animal welfare organization, that you get e few hours of continuing education every two years, that you are sworn in by the Court of Common pleas, and that you operate under the control of your County DA (as do other local police).

A victory for animals, right?  Sort of.  All of this “permission” to do the State’s job came with expensive training for which no funding was provided.  It led to the holding and housing of animals in cruelty cases, sometimes for years, with no reimbursement for costs.  At times it has resulted in extremely activist or unqualified individuals (and I stress a very, very few) acting on behalf of the state, botching strong cases or creating bad ones.  The law provides none of the protections from most lawsuits extended to police which has resulted good, careful organizations, including ours, to be on the receiving end of frivolous suits.  So although much good comes of this ability for private enforcement of the cruelty laws, it also comes with some very high costs.

It also means that organizations like mine are attacked on one hand by those saying we do not do enough to enforce cruelty laws, despite our legal, fiscal and organizational limitations.  On the other hand, we are attacked by others for being “activist” for doing anything at all, even when we are explicitly permitted to do so, have sound legal justification, or are even working under the direction of our DA.

Ultimately, there is the question of whether such private law enforcement should be allowed at all.  That is not an “anti-animal” sentiment, it is a valid question.  Please imagine if abuse of children was going unprosecuted so the State told Opportunity House (a great local charity which my family supports) that, in addition to aiding children in need, sheltering, and feeding them, they should also prosecute those who victimize those very same children and the State will step back from doing that job themselves.  I cannot imagine many would accept that abdication by the State, would believe it appropriate for private child welfare advocates to serve the dual role, or would expect a charity to fund the prosecution of State laws.

Yet we do when it comes to animal cruelty.  But it’s not like we couldn’t do things differently.  There are lots of options out there which might improve, or degrade, the quality of cruelty law enforcement in Pennsylvania.  I think it’s time we start talking about what those ideas and options are.  Off the top of my head I can think of a bunch.  A few might be good ideas, I personally think a couple are terrible ideas, some may simply be unworkable ideas.  However, just like the problem with animal control in Pennsylvania, there are some obvious problems which should be addressed in cruelty law enforcement.

To get the discussion started, here are a random sampling of good, bad and potentially terrible ideas:

  • Take away the power of private officers to enforce Pennsylvania law and:
    • Require Counties and municipalities to enforce them and fund the activities.
    • Create an “State Animal Police” force in Pennsylvania which exclusively enforces cruelty laws.
    • Permit Dog Wardens to enforce PA 5511 (the cruelty law).
  • If private organizations will still do it, try doing these things:
    • Fund training and prosecution costs.
    • Require vastly more training along with the funding.
    • Pass a law explicitly extending protection from lawsuits.
    • Provide State legal representation in lawsuits.
    • Create or extend a State insurance pool to cover lawsuit expenses.
    • Upgrade any violation of PA 5511 occurring in a commercial animal setting (kennel, pet store, etc.) to a misdemeanor, requiring direct action by County DA and removing animal advocates from potential conflict of interest.
    • Create an HSPO oversight board with authority to review complaints and remove the accreditation of HSPO’s found in violation.  Depoliticize such a board by having it operate out of the Attorney General’s office by people who know how to oversee police conduct, not under the Department of Ag packed to the gills with agriculture and dog breeder interests, the very interests which seek to weaken enforcement.

Like I said, these are just ideas off the top of my head and not all great.  However, if I can think up some quick ideas for improvements to our system of protecting animals and enforcing the laws put on the books by our elected representatives in Harrisburg, wouldn’t it be worth doing so, even if it’s just for giggles?  It might end the circular firing squad of blame that occurs every time an animal is hurt and the case is ignored/over prosecuted/under prosecuted, is determined not to be a violation in one county but a violation in another, leads to a frivolous lawsuit, or leads to genuine violations of a citizen’s rights.

As always, doing nothing is easier than changing something so let’s not all start holding our breath, shall we?


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