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A sentence handed down to a Vernon Parish couple charged with animal cruelty has drawn harsh criticism from animal rights activists.

Steven Ray Jones, 49, and Holly Dowden, 31, both of Leesville, recently appeared before 30th Judicial District Court Judge Tony A. Bennett for sentencing in regards to their charges of aggravated animal cruelty.

The charges stemmed from an October 2018 arrest when Vernon authorities removed 30 animals showing signs of neglect from the couple’s residence on Wise Burns Road, and located an additional 12 animals deceased in plain view.

Bennett handed down a deferred sentence for the couple, ordering both to remain on probation and to perform 160 hours of community service at a local humane society location.

The lack of prison time handed down to the couple was a preverbal “slap in the face” to Humane Society of Louisiana director Jeff Dorson, who said in an official release the photographs taken at the scene the animals were recovered from displayed what he would consider “hell on earth for animals.”

“This ruling goes against everything we have worked so hard to accomplish in legislation to protect animals and to seek justice from those who neglect and abuse animals,” Dorson told the American Press. “When you consider the conditions that these animals were living in, and the fact that some of those that were rescued had to be euthanized because of their condition, it would seem to me that this case would be deserving of a much harsher punishment.”

Vernon Parish District Attorney Asa Skinner told the American Press he understood the concerns regarding the case, but believed the sentence imposed was appropriate when considering all aspects of the case.

“Aggravated cruelty to animals is a very serious crime involving the criminal mistreatment of animals, and reactions to that crime can be very emotional,” Skinner said. “This case is one that tears at the heart, but emotional responses coupled with factual inaccuracies and omissions can lead to genuine misunderstanding.”

Skinner said Jones and Dowden have been prohibited from owning any animals or livestock in the future, and were forced to plead to three felony charges each making both become first-time offenders.

Despite some public claims to the contrary, Skinner said that throughout the handling of the case his office consulted “on more than one occasion” with officers who investigated the scene.

Dorson and others have also expressed frustration the couple will not be required to pay substantial fines that would account for the money spent burying the deceased animals and caring for those rescued from the property. According to Dorson, one dog rescued from the property incurred a vet bill more than $1,000 and a Palamino horse was ultimately euthanized at the cost of $250.

Skinner said because of the couple’s filing of indigency status, recent legislative “reforms” have severely hampered the court’s ability to collect restitution. While the fines were imposed, Skinner said the court chose to also impose the lengthy community service hours, “which is something the court can enforce.”

The couple is also expected to undergo psychological evaluation.

Skinner maintains his office took the crime seriously, and will continue to re-evaluate how it was handled in the future.

“Our message to those who would act similarly to Dowden and Jones is that all life is precious and that animal neglect will not be tolerated in Vernon Parish,” Skinner said.

For his part, Dorson has vowed to continue the fight to hold animal abusers, and those entrusted with their prosecution, accountable.

“It is no coincidence that Louisiana ranks last in the country with regard to health care, income per capita, education and opportunity for its residents. We suggest that this type of sentencing also places Louisiana last in the humane treatment of its animals,” Dorson said.

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