Civil Rights

ACLU: Justice reinvestment undermined by General Assembly expansion of “Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline”

A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (ACLU RI) finds that, “the ‘Statehouse-to-prison pipeline‘ got a little wider this year as the result of the General Assembly’s passage of a number of laws adding more than a dozen new felonies to the books and increasing sentences for a handful of crimes, while failing to pass

Published on December 18, 2018
By Steve Ahlquist

A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (ACLU RI) finds that, “the ‘Statehouse-to-prison pipeline‘ got a little wider this year as the result of the General Assembly’s passage of a number of laws adding more than a dozen new felonies to the books and increasing sentences for a handful of crimes, while failing to pass any laws reducing or repealing prison sentences.”

The report is an update of a report issued in January, that examined the problems of mass incarceration and overcriminalization, “that result from the state’s routine passage of laws that create new crimes and add sentences to existing crimes – in the absence of any analysis to support the expansions. Between 2000 and 2017, that earlier report found, the General Assembly created more than 170 new crimes.”

This disappointing finding comes less than a year after the Rhode Island General Assembly enacted “justice reinvestment legislation designed to bring ‘smart justice’ to the state” says the report.

One particularly egregious example was Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s “drug induced homicide” bill, known as Kristin’s Law, which allows the courts to issue a life sentence to a person convicted of delivery a controlled substance, death resulting.

From the report:

“Enacted over the objections of virtually every major medical professional organization in the state, the recovery community and many others, the bill’s impact is likely to often fall on addicted individuals and friends and family members of the overdose victim. That has certainly been the impact of these laws elsewhere.

“It is also important to note that the bill was unnecessary. The tragic death that led to the introduction of the bill, and for whom the legislation is named, was avenged under current law. The dealer who provided that victim the overdose was charged under the state’s current felony murder statute and sentenced to 40 years in prison – all done without the necessity of this bill.

“In light of the overwhelming opposition to this legislation from those working on the front lines of the opioid epidemic, its passage highlighted the returning chasm between evidence-based criminal justice practices and the politicization of crime – a chasm that repudiates 2017’s focus on justice reinvestment.”

For more on how the scientific consensus was ignored, see:

Kristen’s law will do no good and cause significant harm say experts in addiction

Kristen’s Law won’t deter drug use and will ruin lives, say addiction experts

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As calls for a veto pile up, Governor Raimondo says she will sign Kristen’s Law

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Justice reinvestment needs to be a commitment if it is to have any lasting effect; it cannot be a one-year fad whose lessons soon get quickly disregarded,” says the report. “Too often, however, when it comes to legislative initiatives on crime, the evidence and costs continue to be minimized or ignored. Instead, bills that will have a significant impact on individuals, the budget, public policy and the promotion of justice rely on anecdote, political calculations, and myths about crime, all to the long-term detriment of the public and to criminal justice reform.”

The report concludes:

When the package of justice reinvestment legislation was signed into law last October, a General Assembly news release trumpeted that:

Justice Reinvestment embraces the sensible reallocation of criminal justice resources from incarceration to treatment in order to improve public safety, reduce costs and promote rehabilitation of past offenders and successful reentry into society. The bills emphasize not only the hallmarks of Rhode Island’s legal system – equality, justice, and rehabilitation – but also effectiveness and efficiency.

Rhode Island cannot afford, and should not tolerate, a system that places 1 in every 20 adult males and 1 in every 6 adult black males on probation. Without Justice Reinvestment, the Department of Corrections estimates that our state’s prison population will grow by 11 percent over the next decade, adding $28 million in additional operating and staffing costs.

Regrettably, the various criminal sentencing laws enacted in 2018 fail to further the vision contained in those statements. Instead, we can only repeat the entreaty with which we concluded our January report:

Creating more and more offenses and responding to high-profile individual crimes with increased sentences are very unproductive ways to deal with crime, as the evidence is scant that increased sentences have any effect on the crime rate. Whether for fiscal, social, pragmatic or humanitarian reasons, the General Assembly should spend more time considering all the adverse consequences that have arisen from a “get tough on crime” approach, and recognize that the time has come for a different, smarter approach.

Our criminal justice system is broken in many ways. Taking steps to address the “statehouse-to-prison pipeline” is an essential component to fixing that system, promoting fairness, and reining in the deep-seated problems of overcriminalization and mass incarceration.

We hope that in 2019, legislators will take to heart the promises of justice reinvestment from 2017 and promote criminal justice legislation that looks forward, not backward.

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