Legislation introduced in the Rhode Island House and Senate last month would require courts to grant bail or personal recognizance, a written promise to appear at future hearings, to people arrested while on probation.
Currently, under Rhode Island law, people arrested on a probation violation charge may be held at the Adult Correctional Institutions, the state Department of Corrections’ complex of prisons, for up to 10 days while awaiting a hearing for their violation.
If made law, the bills would require courts in Rhode Island to release people arrested for violating their probation until their court date.
“Rhode Island has one of the strictest probation laws in the country,” said state Sen. Tiara Mack ’16, who is a sponsor of the Senate bill.
Activists with Direct Action for Rights and Equality’s Behind the Walls Committee, a group which advocates for policies supporting those impacted by incarceration, are supporting the bills. They point to 2018 data from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which shows that Rhode Island has the third-longest average probation term in the country and a rate of probation that is nearly twice the national average.
Behind the Walls community organizer Anusha Alles said that people on probation are often held in jail for charges that “there may be little or no evidence for.” Probation violations can be as trivial as missing a probation appointment, said state Rep. Jose Batista, one of the legislators who introduced the House bill.
Alles also said that people are often held for a probation violation longer than the 10-day maximum in state law.
“Technically in (the) statute it says they can hold you up to 10 days before you have a violation hearing, but in practice I think the average is actually closer to 30 days,” Alles said. The Council of State Governments Justice Center found in 2015 that 2,785 alleged probation violators were held in custody at the ACI for 31 days on average. Alles said she believes the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the problem due to backlogged court appointments.
Being in custody for over 30 days can derail a person’s life, Alles said. For example, someone could lose their job or lose custody of their kids, and the trauma of being locked up again could also lead to relapses in substance use, she added.
“The trickle-down effects are pretty wide,” Mack said.
Two weeks, alone, in jail could fundamentally disrupt the entire life of someone on probation, David Chavez, a formerly incarcerated person who has served two years of a 12-year probation sentence and testified in favor of the Senate bill, told The Herald.
Chavez, who works for both DARE and Providence’s chapter of Black and Pink, an organization fighting for prison abolition, takes care of his mother, who is 70 years old and has a serious health condition. Without him there, his mother would have to travel to her weekly doctor’s appointments by herself. Additionally, Chavez is a student at the Community College of Rhode Island and works two part-time jobs. Two weeks in jail could cost him his source of income and lead him to fail his courses, he said.
Chavez said he has worked hard to build his life back after serving a 20-year prison sentence. In addition to working and taking courses at CCRI, Chavez serves as a mentor to a young woman who has struggled with substance abuse issues and dropped out of high school.
But Chavez said the current probation law threatens the progress he has made. “I could lose all of this in a matter of moments,” he said, adding that he fears being sent back to jail for a minor or nonexistent violation every time he is pulled over while driving.
According to Alles, people arrested for a probation violation will often end up taking a plea deal in order to avoid incarceration and get the violation dropped. But this is a “perpetuating cycle,” she added.
“Being on probation is a tempting offer when faced with prison as an alternative,” Batista said. “But it is like walking on a trapeze line where you're more than likely to end up in prison anyway.”
According to Alles, this cycle — violating probation and accepting a plea deal that includes more probation time — has significant negative consequences.
“It’s very difficult for people to actually build stability, (including) financial stability and emotional stability,” Alles said, “because they’re constantly in this trap of probation.”
As the bills would require courts to release people arrested on probation violation charges until their court date, individuals would not have to rely on plea deals to avoid jail time before their hearing, she added.
“It is important to pass this legislation because, while it will not resolve all the issues in the criminal justice system, it will take one huge important step forward in terms of reducing the amount of people we incarcerate unjustly,” Batista said.
According to Mack, the next steps for the bills include making edits based on legislators’ suggestions. In the Senate hearing, some legislators and stakeholders expressed concern that the bill would allow for the release of violent offenders charged with probation violations.
President of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers Richard Feruccio testified against the bill during the Senate hearing. He said that the Brotherhood had “strong objections and concerns” regarding the “safety of the bill,” adding that the “legislation is dangerous and irresponsible” because it would apply to everyone arrested on probation, including those arrested on violent charges. Feruccio said that if the bill only applied to those arrested on technical violations, he would be in support of it.
Senator Archaumbault also raised concerns about the bill during the hearing. “The spirit of this, I think, is in the right vein,” Archambault said. “Constructively, though, when it presumes that everyone should be released on bail, you’re losing the people that fall into the violent crime category or people with a huge sentence.”
“The issue is that if you say that everyone shall be released, on their own recognizance, you’re going to have a whole category of people, daily, in these courts, with violent crimes that are offenders, that would have to be released under this. And that, we don’t want,” Archambault said.
Executive Director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association Sid Wordell declined to comment on the bill.
Mack said that a “carveout” may be made to exclude violent offenders from the bill, in response to concerns.
Regardless of the legislation’s final form, Mack emphasized its importance. “Though it is a criminal justice reform bill, I think it will impact a lot of people in terms of access to housing, access to jobs (and) generational wealth,” she said. “It will put Rhode Island closer to what the rest of the nation is doing in terms of criminal justice and court justice.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly credited a statistic from the Pew Charitable Trusts to the Pew Research Center. The Herald regrets the error.