Currently Rhode Island law permits youth under 18 to receive life and other lengthy sentences with no opportunity for parole, meaning they have to spend decades in prison without any chance at review. This bill would not guarantee release for any youth, but it would require the Parole Board to have a parole hearing after the teen has served 15 years.
Rhode Island lags behind states like Arkansas, North Dakota, and West Virginia that have already banned the draconian sentence of life without parole for youth under 18. In the last three years, our neighboring states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont have ended this practice and the number of states across the country banning this sentence have almost quadrupled. The United States stands alone in perpetuating this sentence. S 237 and H 5183 are in line with the letter and spirit of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions scaling back extreme penalties for children in the adult criminal justice system, which cite adolescent development research showing that youth are uniquely able to be rehabilitated.
Youth who receive life sentences are typically victims themselves long before they engage in any type of criminal activity. Nationally, more than half of juvenile lifers report witnessing regular violence in their neighborhoods, while nearly 80 percent of juvenile lifers have experienced violence in their own homes. Half have been physically abused and 20 percent have been sexually abused. Additionally, there are severe racial biases, when nationally African American youth are sentenced to life without parole at a per capita rate of ten times that of White youth who commit comparable offenses. This bias is also true in Rhode Island, with over 75 percent of the youth serving lengthy sentences are children of color in a state that is over 80 percent White.
The Speaker, Majority Leader, and bill sponsor need encouragement to prioritize this bill in the last days of the legislative session! Call them to share the following message:
Dear [Speaker Mattiello / Majority Leader Shekarchi / Representative Blazejewski],
As a resident of District _____, I am reaching out to voice my support for Senate Bill 237 and House Bill 5183, which would end life-without-parole sentences for children. They would hold young people accountable for the harm they have caused, protect public safety, and ensure that every youth in Rhode Island can have the opportunity to go before the Parole Board.
It is essential that Rhode Island enact legislation creating fair and age-appropriate sentences for children and in doing so catch up with our neighbors Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont, and states like Arkansas and West Virginia. S 237 and H 5183 are in line with the spirit of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on this issue. Children are different from adults and extreme sentences like life without parole are never appropriate for Rhode Island’s children.