Systemic racism and the Rhode Island General Assembly’s committee process

The way the Rhode Island General Assembly prioritizes bills under consideration is systemically racist and a product of white supremacy. Bills of interest to white, middle and upper class voters are prioritized over bills of concern to mostly low-income people and voters of color.
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Published on April 20, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist

The Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee held 12 hearings on a variety of legislation so far in 2022. Due to Covid restrictions, the Judiciary Committee took testimony by phone or in person until March 3. On March 10 the Committee held their first in-person only hearing.

The Committee is chaired by Representative Robert Craven, first vice-chair Representative Carol Hagan McEntee and second vice-chair Representative Jason Knight. It is unclear how the chairs of the committee are involved in the planning, scheduling or preparation of committee meetings. Second Vice-Chair Knight told UpriseRI he has nothing to do with these details.

Instead, committee meetings seem to be organized via behind the scenes collaboration between House leadership – that is Speaker Joseph Shekarchi, Majority Leader Christopher Blazejewski and the various committee chairs – and legislative consul, the lawyers that work at the State House.

Because of the nature of House and Senate Judiciary Committees in Rhode Island, it is the place where many of the most important and polarizing issues are discussed. Bills tackling these issues often draw large crowds of people who want to testify. On March 30, for instance, the Judiciary took up a series of bills pertaining to firearms in a hearing that started at 3pm and lasted over 8 hours. On April 7 the committee took up bills pertaining to abortion rights for three and a half hours.

Putting abortion and guns aside (though I’ll return to guns briefly near the end), four other House judiciary Committee hearings drew large crowds, including:

  • A March 17 committee hearing on a series of bills pertaining to rental housing and landlords;
  • a March 24 committee hearing on a bill that would grant licenses to undocumented drivers; and,
  • an April 13 committee hearing on a bill to curb the use of solitary confinement in the ACI and a series of bills pertaining to criminal justice.

What these bills have in common is that they are all of interest, though not exclusively, to people who are low-income and people of color. People who have a lot of money are not commonly having a problem with slum lords and being illegally evicted; undocumented people in our state in need of licenses are not commonly rich and white; and the burdens of our criminal justice system – whether it’s in terms of certain criminalized behaviors or in terms of our treatment of prisoners – more commonly falls on low-income people and disproportionately on people of color.

When a large group of people shows up to testify on bills that are important to them, the committee chairs work to get the smaller bills – that typically have less people waiting to testify – out of the way first. It should be noted that the people waiting to testify on these “smaller” bills are more-often-than-not paid lobbyists or business people, and that this population tends to skew white and well-off.

The House Judiciary Committee typically hears a lot of bills during a hearing – on April 13 they heard over 30 bills! – so getting through the “smaller” bills takes a lot of time. For instance, on April 13 those wishing to testify against (or even for) solitary confinement waited three hours – until after 8pm – before testimony on their bill was heard and those wishing to testify on the bills pertaining to criminal justice and procedure were forced to wait over six hours – past 11pm – before the hearing began on their bills.

DARE worked hard to get people to the State House to testify, and supplied pizza in the Bell Room, but most people who came to the State House left with their voices unheard.

Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) brought dozens of people to the State House to testify in support of both the bill that would limit the use of solitary confinement and a bunch of the criminal justice bills on April 13, but when it came time to testify, many of the people who had come to the State House to testify had left. Most people have families and jobs to get to in the morning, and the committee hearing lasted until 1:30am on a Wednesday!

Getting the smaller bills out of the way so the committee can concentrate on the weightier issues might make sense, but in practice, as the night wears on, fewer and fewer of the 15 members of the committee are in attendance. On any given night there may be as few as five committee members in the room at the end of a long hearing, and even those who stick it out to the end have left the room for various lengths of time – missing vital testimony – to stretch their legs or go to the bathroom.

One might think that this is just a problem of too many bills and too little time, but there was one more Judiciary Committee hearing this year I haven’t mentioned yet, and this hearing adds a little more perspective.

On April 5, the committee took up a bunch of bills on a wide range of subjects. After getting an hour’s worth of other bills introduced (mostly to accommodate government officials and lobbyists) the committee took up H8055, a bill about shoreline access. The people in the committee room waiting for their opportunity to testify were mostly white, middle and upper class residents of southern Rhode Island shoreline communities. Expressing their concerns and comments took two hours and twenty minutes. The Judiciary Committee finished hearing testimony on the shoreline access bill around 8:30pm, around the same time the committee began to take testimony on the solitary confinement bill a week later.

Make no mistake, shoreline access is an important topic and a vital constitutional issue, but it is not necessarily more or less important than the use of solitary confinement in our prison system or granting licenses to drive to our undocumented neighbors.

The shoreline access bill testimony was followed by an hour and ten minutes of testimony devoted to other bills, many which were introduced near the beginning of the hearing but paused until after the shoreline access bill was heard. Some lobbyists and public officials were made to wait as the testimony of white constituents were prioritized, and these same lobbyists expressed surprise that the process was not catering to them. The April 5 Judiciary Committee hearing that took up shoreline access finished shortly after 10pm, more than an hour before the bills on criminal justice reform were taken up a week later.

The experience of the legislative process for the attendees of the April 5 committee meeting was vastly different from the experience of low-income communities of color at the three other Judiciary Committee hearings above. This observation doesn’t apply just to the House Judiciary Committee – most if not all the committees in both the House and the Senate have similar issues when it comes to respecting and prioritizing public testimony and comment from non-white, non-affluent constituents.

Going back to the March 30 House Judiciary hearing on firearms, we see that this hearing was started at 3pm, two hours earlier than any other Judiciary Committee hearing. This allowed the committee to be done with public testimony a little over eight hours later. No one had to stay up past midnight to testify. It should go without saying that most (not all) of the people testifying in favor of less restrictions on firearms were white and middle class.

The different experiences of white people and people of color at the Rhode Island General Assembly is a product of white supremacy and systemic racism – examples of which can be found throughout the legislative process.

For example, when mostly low-income residents of color living near the Port of Providence brought their concerns with Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) Chair Jennifer Cervenka to the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture, their concerns were dismissed and Cervenka was re-approved for another term. (This actually happened twice!) But when residents of New Shoreham brought concerns about Chair Cervenka’s behavior to the Rhode Island Attorney General, she was forced to step down from her position.

A copy of this piece was sent to House leadership and every member of the House Judiciary Committee before publication. UpriseRI received one response:

“I appreciate your efforts to try to shine a light on the process,” said Representative Knight.

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