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AG Peter Neronha: Justice demands reclassifying simple possession as a misdemeanor



Rhode Island State Attorney General Peter Neronha delivered the following words at a press conference detailing legislation he has proposed to reduce simply possession of a controlled substance from a felony to a misdemeanor.

You can watch the address in the video at the bottom of the page. [See: AG Neronha announces legislation to reclassify simple drug possession as misdemeanors]

“We are here to talk about proposed legislation that changes how the criminal justice system addresses one of our most significant public health crises – drug addiction – and removes a significant obstacle to long-term recovery for those addicted and who possess drugs solely for personal use – a felony arrest or conviction.

“Under existing Rhode Island law, simple possession, for personal use, of less than an ounce of a drug remains a felony, punishable by up to three years in prison.

“The proposed legislation we are announcing today would reclassify simple possession of less than an ounce of any drug for personal use as a misdemeanor. The maximum prison term for violations of the statute would be adjusted to correspond with a misdemeanor offense—not more than one year in prison.

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“I have been a state and federal prosecutor for over 20 years. As an Assistant Attorney General and as an Assistant United States Attorney, I handled more felony drug cases than I can count. Some of those cases were simple possession cases, cases that are felonies under state law as it exists today. And some were serious drug trafficking cases. When I was United States Attorney, we prosecuted the largest heroin and cocaine trafficking cases ever brought in this state.

“As United States Attorney, I also talked with substance abuse counselors, doctors, other health professionals and, most significantly, people who are addicted, people who are in recovery, the parents and friends of people who suffer or have suffered from drug addiction, and in some instances have lost their lives to addiction.

“I moderated panels on addiction and recovery at open meetings in cities and towns all over Rhode Island, from South Kingstown to Bristol, Cranston to Middletown, Woonsocket to North Kingston, and Providence to Central Falls. How many times did I hear a parent talk about their concern for their adult children, suffering from addiction? Did they view their children as felons? I did not.

“During my last year as United States Attorney, I made over 20 visits to high schools to talk about this issue. Of all these visits, the most powerful voice was that of a senior who spoke to all of her classmates, in a packed auditorium, of her road to cocaine and heroin use, and then to recovery. I have never seen a greater display of courage than that of that young woman. Did I view her as a felon? I did not. Did she view herself that way? I hope not.

“I say all of this because I look at the drug addiction and public health crisis we face today through the lens of that experience. And that experience has taught me that there is a substantial difference between those who traffic in drugs and those who simply possess them, fueled by addiction.

“Drug traffickers deserve our maximum prosecutorial efforts. They are the ones fueling addiction and preying on that addiction, and I have no tolerance for them. Identifying them and bringing them to justice is one of my top law enforcement priorities, along with gun violence.

“If you are a drug dealer – this proposed legislation doesn’t protect you. Just the opposite, it pivots our law enforcement focus entirely on you.

“If you deal drugs, in any amount, the law remains the same – you are a drug dealer and a felon, and my office will prosecute you as one.

“If you possess over an ounce of drugs, the law remains the same – you are a drug dealer and a felon, and my office will prosecute you as one.

“If you possess under an ounce of drugs, and yet your intent is to distribute them to others, the law remains the same – you are a drug dealer and a felon, and my office will prosecute you as one.

“But those who simply possess drugs, who are addicted and cannot escape, at least not yet, the cycle of addiction, are different, and should be treated as such, under the law, and by law enforcement.

“People who simply possess small amounts to use themselves – in my view, that is not felonious conduct and should not be prosecuted and punished as such.

“I know that in some quarters, this proposal may raise some concerns.

“I am aware of those concerns and I respect them.

“For example, I know how the increasing prevalence of cheap, Chinese-sourced fentanyl distributed by the Mexican cartels has made this public health crisis so much worse and so much more dangerous than it would be otherwise.

“And yet – if an individual has fentanyl in his/her possession, that person either doesn’t know it, or is in need of serious help.

“Again, our focus – our laser-like focus – needs to be, and will continue to be, on dealers, not users. And our criminal justice system should reflect that distinction.

“Why is that distinction so critical?

“All of us know that felony convictions create serious obstacles for people as they try to re-enter society, find work, and support their children and families.

“By lifting this barrier to successful reentry, we are also removing a barrier to long-term recovery.

“To some, this may seem very forward-leaning. But the trail has been blazed by others. More than 20 states – and most of our neighbors in the northeast as you can see from this map – already view simple possession as non-felony conduct.

“The world has changed so much since I first became a prosecutor in 1996. Back then, in Providence County Superior Court, I prosecuted probation violators who sometimes went to prison based on a previous charge of possessing a needle and syringe, then a five-year felony. Eliminating that law in the late 1990’s, and similar ones in other states like Massachusetts, drew plenty of objection and took plenty of time. And yet no one today would seriously argue that that law should remain on the books.

“The world has changed. We have got to be smarter in a whole host of ways as we re-think our criminal justice system. Justice demands it. Our limited resources demand it. I want our prosecutors focused on the cases, criminal and civil, that have the greatest impact on the people of this state.

“This legislation is fair, and it is just. And that is why I believe in it.”

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