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Working group aims to reform R.I. probation system

Rhode Island home to second-highest probation rate in country, experts cite lengthy terms as flaw

The work of the Rhode Island Justice Reinvestment Working Group, assembled by Gov. Gina Raimondo to improve the state’s criminal justice system, seems poised to come to fruition as the anniversary of its July 2015 inception draws nearer. According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center’s website, the group was created to reform the Rhode Island probation system.

The group’s work follows 2008 efforts to reform the criminal justice system that focused on incarceration.

Rhode Island has the second highest probation rate in the country with 23,000 people in the system, according to a presentation available online that the Justice Center gave Raimondo in December.

Probation, according to the presentation, is an over-utilized sentencing option, and those on probation often remain under supervision for far too long. The high probation rate is a direct result of these two issues, the center argued.

Nationally, periods of probation last an average of two years, whereas the average probation period in Rhode Island amounts to three years if probation is the only sentencing and six years for probation following incarceration.

Such high probation lengths mean that there are not enough resources offered by the General Assembly to properly supervise the entire population on probation ­­­— in Rhode Island, 60 percent of the probation population goes unsupervised, according to the presentation. This fault in the system leads to high costs and high rates of failure. Within three years, 50 percent of the individuals on probation are up for resentencing, the presentation indicated.

For those who are supervised, the lengthy probation term does not significantly reduce the rate of repeat offenses. According to Chief Justice Paul Suttell, co-chair of the working group, “Statistics show that the vast majority of people who reoffend do so within the first three years, and it drops off dramatically after that.”

At this stage, the working group aims to increase the efficiency of probation supervision and bolster public safety by reducing the probation population and recidivism, Suttell said.

While the group has put forth several recommendations to improve the probation system, the recommendations can only make an impact if state legislators pass bills to make the recommendations law or if rule changes are introduced directly within the courts, Suttell said. Such changes are expected to occur before the end of this legislative session, which could end in late June, he added.

“One of the changes would be to increase the burden of proof for finding that a person has violated the terms of probation,” Suttell said. Whereas previously, a judge needed only to be reasonably satisfied that the person in question violated the conditions of probation, the adoption of the new rules introduced by the working group would make it so that a judge would have to find violation by a preponderance of the evidence.

According to Suttell, a second significant change the group means to implement is a three-year maximum probation length for non-violent offenses, unless a judge has compelling reasoning to lengthen that sentence.

“The idea would be to keep people on probation for shorter periods but to provide more services to them that are treatment opportunities,” Suttell said. “Perhaps job training — whatever might be necessary to ensure that they don’t reoffend.”

Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Rhode Island, believes it is too soon to foresee any challenges the group may encounter in transforming its recommendations from ideas into legislation. He worked in parallel with the group but was not a member.

Members of the group had significant disagreements, Brown said. “I don’t know how that will all play out when it comes to trying to get legislation passed.”

According to Carl Reynolds, legal and policy advisor for the Justice Center, controversy still surrounds the question of how to respond to violations of the conditions of probation. In the current system, probation violators serve an average of one year in prison regardless of whether their violation is technical — a misstep that would not be a crime if the person were not on probation. The group intends to define more clearly the different kinds of violations that are committed and attach punishments accordingly.

“We really tried to push the state to think about a more constrained response overall to that juncture in the system. Swiftness and certainty of punishment are more effective than severity alone,” Reynolds said.

Once the legislation comes to a conclusion, the question of whether or not the state will receive funding for the implementation of these changes will still remain, Reynolds said. “I think (Rhode Island can get) a couple million dollars, potentially, of funding directed to the state that helps do training, improve data systems ­— whatever ends up making the most sense,” he added.

If the state grants the funding, Reynolds said, the Justice Reinvestment Working Group will continue collaborating with the state on implementing changes.

“There is no question (that the working group is doing necessary work). … We are very pleased that the governor has brought together this group to try to address this really critical issue,” Brown said.


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