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Alums’ film takes on probation law

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It was more than two years ago that Phillip Jackson, 43, was charged with simple assault. He was alleged to have hit a 17-year-old who neighbors said had yelled racial slurs at Jackson’s young children. But a witness who saw Jackson confront the teenager said Jackson didn’t touch him.

The charge was dismissed, and Jackson was never put on trial for the incident. But because he was on probation, he was put behind bars for seven years anyway.

During a screening of the documentary “Stronger Than Their Walls” in List 120 last night, just over 25 students watched film of Jackson saying that he was a changed man from when he committed the crime that – more than 20 years ago – put him in jail in the first place and, later, on probation. He said he has become more responsible since he became a father.

But because of a law that allows judges to send people to jail for violating probation if they are charged with a new crime, Jackson sees his children under twice a week now, even though the assault charge was ultimately thrown out. Rhode Island is one of only three states in the nation, along with Alabama and South Dakota, to have such a law.

Four Brown alums working at the Rhode Island Family Life Center, a non-profit organization that works with and advocates for ex-inmates, began creating the film about a year ago.

“I thought that the documentary would be the best way to bring the pretty compelling ideology of the problem to people who were more distant from the issue,” said Nick Horton ’04, a policy researcher at the Family Life Center.

Julia Liu ’06, Jon Mahone ’99 and Keith Heyward ’07 all worked on the film with Horton.

According to Horton, who is also a co-producer and co-director of the film, one in every 26 Rhode Islanders is on probation.

“Huge parts of communities are on probation, so that combined with the very low standards for re-sentencing someone, is kind of a perfect storm for creating due process violations,” he said.

In addition to Jackson’s and other personal accounts, the film details efforts, led by State Representative David Segal, D-Dist. 2, and the Family Life Center, to advance legislation called the “Justice and Innocence Bill,” which would take away judges’ ability to put people on probation in jail without a new conviction.

In Rhode Island, when people on probation are charged with a crime, they are given two options: to plead “no contest” and accept a deal that could put them behind bars or to have a hearing, the film explains.

Jackson, who is the film’s central figure, maintained his innocence and refused to accept a deal that would have put him behind bars for two years. He opted for a judge’s hearing instead.

But under state law, a judge does not need to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to put someone on probation back in jail. The law only requires the judge be “reasonably satisfied” that the defendant violated his or her pledge to “preserve the peace and be of good behavior,” according to the film.

It’s very rare that a judge will rule in favor of the person on probation, a public defender named John Hardiman says in the film. “It’s like driving a bike up a mountain. It’s really hard to overcome.”

Jackson didn’t win his hearing, and the judge sent him back to prison for seven more years.

“Seven years. For yelling at someone?” Jackson said.

Jackson’s complaints are echoed by two others – sent to jail by the law – whose stories the film highlights.

The film also chronicles the roadblocks Segal’s and the Family Life Center’s bill has faced. One of its strongest opponents is State Attorney General Patrick Lynch ’87.

During June 2008 State Senate hearings that are shown in the film, a member of Lynch’s office argued that someone on probation can still be a danger – and can still be sent to jail – even if he or she is not found guilty of an additional crime.

“Probation violations aren’t based on the new charge, they’re based on the old charge,” Lynch’s representative said at the hearing.

Lynch’s office could not be reached for comment.

In the organization’s first try two years ago, the bill passed the General Assembly but not the Senate. Last year, it passed both houses, but Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65 vetoed it.

Segal, who attended the screening, told The Herald afterward that he is confident the bill he sponsored will become a law this year. But he said it is largely dependent on whether the bill can pass early in session, so that the legislature will have enough time to override Carcieri’s expected veto.

According to Segal, the speaker of the house and committee leaders said they would discuss the bill early in the legislative year.

In the meantime, Segal and Horton are trying to garner support from the public. Horton said the documentary had been screened seven times before last night, and he thought Brown would be a good place for an eighth screening.

Brown students “are really interested in criminal justice and prison reform issues,” he said.

Scott Turcotte ’11 signed up for the Family Life Center’s mailing list after the screening and said he would like to go down to the State House to support the bill.

“I thought it was really tragic,” Turcotte said. “I’d love to get involved.”

Until the bill passes – or until his seven years are up – Jackson will remain in prison.

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