A package of six bills meant to reform the parole and probation system in Rhode Island officially passed in the R.I. General Assembly last week. The legislation “overwhelmingly” passed in the State Senate in June and in the House last week, said State Rep. Robert Craven, D-North Kingstown. Craven, a sponsor of three of the bills, discussed the legislation’s aim to minimize recidivism and save taxpayer money.
The state spends more than $70,000 a year incarcerating a single individual, Craven said. “More than 90 percent of the people that go to jail in Rhode Island don’t go to jail as a result of a trial and conviction — they go to jail as a result of being on probation.”
The Ocean State has one of the highest probation rates in the country, second only to Georgia. With approximately 24,400 offenders under adult probation and parole and 8,400 under active supervision, Rhode Island’s probation rate is 91 percent higher than the national average, according to National Institute of Corrections’ 2015 statistics.
The legislative package offers a better set of post-conviction and pre-conviction services, Craven said. While crafting the legislation, those in the Assembly with background in criminal defense law consulted with a variety of stakeholders, including the public defender’s office, the attorney general’s office, the National Assocation for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Civil Rights Roundtable, said State Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, who also introduced the legislation.
Often, those on probation will go on to commit very “minimal” actions that rise “to the level of failing to keep the peace and good behavior,” and, consequently, those offenders return to jail again and again, Craven said. By shifting focus from jail time to rehabilitation, the state can save tax revenue: Every convicted individual that does not return to jail saves money for the state.
“Eighty percent of the people in the district court coming through the door are there directly or indirectly as a result of mental illness, drugs or alcohol, and, if you can solve those problems, (they are) far less likely to come back,” Craven said.
Vanessa Flores-Maldonado ’14, campaign coordinator for the Providence Community-Police Relations Act — an ordinance passed in order to reform police-community relations and prohibit racial profiling — said that mental health programs are salient in combating criminal activity.
“It is important to address mental health issues and how they come into play especially in the criminal justice system,” Flores-Maldonado said. If individuals “had the proper mental health resources, then they probably wouldn’t find themselves in the situations that they are currently in,” she said.
One of the six bills in the package — the Act Relating to Criminal Procedure, Sentence and Execution — would change several sentencing and execution guidelines, including new conditions of probation. For instance, when a person violates the terms and conditions of probation as deemed by the court, they will have the chance to appeal.
Before the six bills were passed, there was no way to appeal a violation, Ajello said.
Additionally, Ajello said she supported one of the bills that will reduce the maximum sentence for certain felony assault crimes from 20 years to six years. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin was opposed to this part of the legislation, and it ultimately caused him not to support the package as a whole, she said.
“The Attorney General urged (Governor Gina Raimondo) to veto (the package), making statements that these people are not being punished for serious crimes,” Ajello said. Some could see this as unfair to the vicitims of assault crimes — but, under the new law, prosecutors could still bring multiple charges against alleged perpetrators in order to up their potential sentences, she said.
Ajello said that a lot of defendants faced with a package of charges often plead to one of the charges in order to start serving their time and get back into the community quicker but in doing so, defendants can end up agreeing to “a really long probationary period.”
“Defendants, in many cases, don’t have the money to pay a lawyer to defend them in court, so they end up making these pleas,” Ajello said.
Another part of the legislation includes new methods in identifying candidates for rehabilitation in diversion courts.
“The diversion court is a method by which people are identified right after they are being charged in their first contact with the court system as being people suffering from mental, drug and alcohol abuse,” Craven said. “And if appropriately presented as a candidate, they would be diverted from the typical path in the criminal justice court system to a diversion court,” he added.
In turn, the diversion court will work with offenders to supply counseling, supervision and drug testing for a minimum of six to 12 months, Craven said, adding that the court itself will ultimately decide how it is run.
Past the legislative stage, there will be challenges in implementing the new bills, Flores-Maldonado said, specifically the need for proper resources and training within police departments. Police officers must be trained to handle individuals with mental illnesses, she said, pointing to instances of police officers pulling their weapons on individuals experiencing panic attacks.
“I don’t think any cop really knows what to do when a person is having a mental breakdown other than ‘we should throw you into jail and see if that calms you down.’ This is an issue that needs to be looked at from different angles not just within the jail system,” she said.
The adult correctional institution will implement the changes in probation and parole, Craven said, while the courts will implement the changes to the rules of criminal procedures and sentencing guidelines for certain types of crimes.
“It is important to look at the whole chain of how someone ends up in prison from the very beginning,” Flores-Maldonado said.