By Katie Mulvaney
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — State lawmakers, public defenders, corrections officials, community activists and police came together with Governor Gina Raimondo on Thursday to hail a series of new laws as the most historic changes to the criminal justice system in Rhode Island to arise in decades.
“This has been a change in consciousness,” retired Superior Court Judge Judith Colenback Savage said at a celebratory signing at the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence of the so-called Justice Reinvestment bills. Savage praised the six bills, aimed at overhauling the state’s criminal sentencing laws and reducing the prison population, as much needed mechanisms to “reconcile criminal justice policy with our humanity.”
Savage served as co-chair of the Rhode Island Justice Reinvention Working Group, a 27-member panel of legislators, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, agency heads and community organizations. It was convened by Raimondo in 2015 to address Rhode Island’s burgeoning probation population. A similar legislative package, also backed by the panel, died in the House last year during the early-morning hours of the final legislative session.
“Today is a pivot, a turning point,” P.J. Fox, executive director of the institute, agreed. It represents a shift from incarceration to restoration, he said before the packed room.
Raimondo praised the bills as the coming together of a vast collection of interests.
“It’s time to make Rhode Island more fair … more just,” Raimondo said, adding, “This about social justice, racial justice and equality.”
She rejected criticisms, some that came from Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, that the measures were soft on crime.
“This isn’t about being soft on crime. It’s about being smart on crime,” she said.
The new laws adopt an “evidence-based” approach to parole and probation supervision that would dedicate the bulk of the resources to offenders who are most at risk to re-offend. It would give more discretion to the state Parole Board and expand what victims can collect in restitution from offenders. It would mandate state Department of Corrections revisions geared toward reducing recidivism — including setting up a fund for a batterer’s intervention program.
It would allow Superior Court judges to enter into diversion pacts with substance abuse and mental health counseling and other conditions. The judges would also be able to alter charges after successful treatment.
The new laws, too, change the penalties for criminal offenses involving assault and larceny. For example, the maximum penalty for assault with a dangerous weapon, in which there was no serious bodily injury, the maximum sentence was reduced from 20 years to six.
Robert E. Craven Sr., chairman of the House Committee on Labor, said that the hope is that the millions of dollars expected to be saved as fewer people are imprisoned would be put toward building up drug, alcohol and mental health treatment resources. The goal is to help offenders stay out of jail, Craven said.
“If people don’t come back, it’s a lifetime worth of savings,” Craven said.