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Two men sue ACI on grounds of illegal sentencing

Pablo Ortega, Joao Neves file petitions against DOC for illegally holding them in violation of Mario’s Law

<p>Mario’s Law gives juvenile offenders the chance to appear before a parole board after 20 years.</p><p>Courtesy of Steven Brown</p>

Mario’s Law gives juvenile offenders the chance to appear before a parole board after 20 years.

Courtesy of Steven Brown

Joao Neves and Pablo Ortega were just teenagers when they were sentenced to life in prison. 

Under a law passed last July called the Youthful Offenders Act, colloquially known as “Mario’s Law,” they are entitled to a parole hearing after serving 20 years, according to American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lynette Labinger. 

Neves and Ortega have both filed petitions against the Department of Corrections for illegally keeping them behind bars. The two men are represented by three attorneys from the ACLU — Labinger, Lisa Holley and Sonja Deyoe. 

According to his application for post-conviction relief, Neves was 17 on Feb. 4, 2000 when he was sentenced to life in prison for first degree murder. He was also sentenced to five ten-year sentences for robbery and assault with intent to commit robbery, with each to be served concurrent to each other and consecutive to the life sentence.

On March 2, 2002, 19-year-old Ortega was given a life sentence for first degree murder and an additional five years for conspiracy to commit a felony, according to his application for post-conviction relief.

Both men have been incarcerated for over 20 years. With Mario’s Law, they have a chance for parole.

Under Mario’s Law, “any person sentenced for any offense committed prior to his or her twenty- second birthday,” aside from someone sentenced to life without parole, “shall be eligible for parole review” and may receive a parole permit after serving twenty years. Because there is no one currently serving a juvenile sentence for life without parole in the state, every juvenile offender is eligible for parole under Mario’s Law. The law excludes people eligible for earlier parole.

Both Ortega and Neves have been granted parole for their life sentences for murder, yet the Department of Corrections has not released them, ordering that they must remain in the Adult Correctional Institutions until they have served the terms for the lesser sentences, ACLU attorney Lisa Holley wrote in an email to The Herald. 

Rhode Island Department of Corrections Spokesperson J. R. Ventura declined to comment on the matter because Neves’ and Ortegas’ cases are still in litigation.

“The intent of Mario’s Law was to make youthful offenders (under 22 years of age) eligible for parole on all sentences once they serve 20 years,” Holley wrote. “Both Neves and Ortega have served the requisite time and under the law should be eligible for parole into the community.”

Who’s behind Mario’s Law?

“Mario’s Law” is named after Mario Monteiro, who told The Herald that he has been incarcerated at the ACI with a life sentence since he was a teenager. Monteiro began advocating for the bill’s passage around 2016, he said, after he “caught wind of it” through someone he knew in maximum security.

“They told me a bill was being introduced,” Monteiro said. “And I knew that it would help me.” 

Monteiro began contacting friends and family. He also wrote letters to the Public Defender’s office in Rhode Island and community advocacy groups such as the ACLU and the Equal Justice Initiative — “any organizations that we thought might be able to help us,” he explained.

“At first no one was willing to help,” Monteiro said. “But eventually some started helping.”

Monteiro met several state representatives through classes he was enrolled in at the ACI, including Julie Casimiro (D-RI District 31), who later became a lead sponsor of the bill. 

“It kind of snowballed from there,” Monteiro said. Monteiro joined Providence’s chapter of Black and Pink, a prison abolitionist group, and met Brown students through the student advocacy group Railroad. Together, they built momentum and support around the bill, holding rallies and sharing information through the press. 

But “the actual bill that we were fighting for for years isn’t the one that passed,” Monteiro said. “There was a compromise made.”

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The original goal of the bill was to ban life without parole for juveniles and allow them to see the parole board after 15 years, regardless of their charges. The final bill approved eligibility for parole after 20 years. This was passed in July through the 2022 state budget bill.

According to Monteiro, many people who are currently incarcerated at the ACI stand to benefit from the law.

“I don’t think any juvenile should be sentenced to life without parole,” Monteiro said. “I know myself and who I was as a kid, and I know the change that I’ve been able to make since I’ve been here.”

Attorneys, sponsors comment on law

Michael DiLauro, who works in the office of Legislative Initiatives at the Public Defender’s office, told The Herald that he worked on the bill for about a year before its momentum really began to “take off” in early 2019, when Attorney General Peter Neronha took office. Neronha was more open to implementing legislation that took recent research published on young people’s brain development into account when considering the extent of sentencing, he added.  

Labinger also believes Mario’s Law was passed partially due to research published in the last 10 years on young peoples’ brain development. “Mario’s law was basically a response to the current thinking that young people’s brains are not as developed and their chance of impetuous and poor judgment does not necessarily mean that later in life they will be the same person,” Labinger said. 

DiLauro has met Monteiro several times, which he credits for inspiring some of his work on the bill. 

“Mario’s story is very powerful because if you were to spend any time with him, you would see the adolescent brain development stuff written large,” DiLauro said of Monteiro’s transformation from adolescence to adulthood. 

Mario’s Law doesn’t just “give people a free pass,” he said. Rather, it allows juvenile offenders to appear before a parole board, which presents the opportunity to be released if the parole board deems them eligible, DiLauro said.  

“Whether or not (Monteiro and other juvenile offenders are) deserving of parole, that’s a decision for people with expertise in this area — that is, the parole board — to make. But whether or not he gets considered for parole, that’s something for the legislature to decide,” DiLauro said.

Mario’s Law “open(s) the door,” Labinger said. “But it doesn’t get you through it.”

Labinger disagrees with the Department of Corrections’ decision not to release Neves and Ortega. 

“The way Mario’s Law was passed was basically to say, if you were under 22 at the time that you committed the crime that you’re sentenced for, when you get to 20 years you should get a first pass at the Parole board,” Labinger said. “We believe that the DOC has completely nullified that requirement by saying, ‘No, that applies only to the first sentence, and then you have to serve the rest of them just the same as you would have otherwise.”

Labinger expressed the need for a “resolution” to the conflicting interpretations of the law. Over the past several months, the ACLU has represented several others who also filed complaints against the DOC for violating Mario’s Law, she said. Funding for this comes at the cost of both ACLU attorneys and state resources. 

“We think the state also wants a resolution because doing this one at a time saps the energies of the court,” Labinger said. “They’re all the same issue and the facts are very similar.”

Beyond her desire to carry out justice and implement a more liberal interpretation of Mario’s Law, Labinger expressed a deeper motivation behind her decision to represent Neves and Ortega. 

“The ACLU has long questioned mass incarceration, extraordinarily long sentences and things that keep people in jail beyond what the law requires,” Labinger said. “It’s very important that even folks who have lost most elements of their liberty are not completely devoid of any liberty when they’re in jail.”

“I don’t want to minimize the crimes they’ve done, but Mr. Ortega and Mr. Neves have been in jail for 20 years (and) lost their entire adulthoods,” Labinger said. “If we’re talking about giving people a chance to show they can be safe and contributing members of the community, why is the state interpreting Mario’s Law in this harsh way?”



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