Criminal Justice Reform A Priority

On Monday we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. and I would like to echo the suggestion made by Jim Vincent, president of the Providence NAACP, in today’s ProJo — “Honor King with probation reform.”

Rhode Island has the second-highest probation rate in the country – one in 20 adult men are on probation at any given time in the state, and the ratio is a stunning one in six for black men. Half of our probationers end up being resentenced for new crimes or violations within three years, because even as we hand out excessive probation sentences, we do not take steps to identify high-risk probationers and improve supervision and services to help break the cycle of incarceration.

Our “illogical and archaic” probation system is badly in need of reform. Violating the terms of probation can be shockingly easy — subjects can end up back in prison for even a minor slip-up. This system wreaks havoc in low-income communities and does nothing to enhance public safety.

In 2015 Governor Raimondo created the R. I. Justice Reinvestment Working Group bringing together “a diverse panel of lawmakers, judges, agency leaders, mental health advocates, community groups and others” aimed at reforming our criminal justice system (ProJo 6.28.16). One result was a criminal justice reform package comprising six justice bills.

But despite the passionate support of the governor, the Senate president, the judiciary and key community leaders, these bills never came to a vote in the House.

What happened in the early morning hours of June 18 is an illustration of the power and the primacy of the Speaker of the House.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello never let the bills out of committee for a floor vote, falling back on the old “soft on crime” defense. (Ed Fitzpatrick’s response, “What is this — the 1980’s?”) These bills had huge bipartisan support; they weren’t even considered controversial, just smart and fair.

Let your legislators know that you support probation reform legislation.

(This bust of Martin Luther King Jr. can be found on the third floor of the Rhode Island State House.)

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