Last session, the justice reinvestment legislation didn’t have bicameral support at the State House; the full Senate resoundingly passed the bills while the House of Representatives didn’t vote on the bills. While it’s still unclear what the House will do this session, the six bills that were born out of a task force appointed by Governor Gina Raimondo, will at least have some level of bipartisan support.
The Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a conservative-leaning, small government advocacy group, formally endorsed the package yesterday at a conference on helping Rhode Island families.
“Families need to be the focus of our policies, not being tough on crime,” said the Center’s CEO Mike Stenhouse. “We can see that poor criminal justice kills families.”
While the package has been touted as fiscally prudent – by investing $9.5 million the state would save $13.4 million – Stenhouse said saving money isn’t the primary concern.
“It may be (fiscally pragmatic), and if it is great, but that’s not my primary concern,” he said. “My primary concern in any policy we do, whether conservative or liberal, should be the well being of Rhode Island families.”
According to a press release from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, “The legislation would modernize the state’s over-burdened probation system, which disproportionately impacts black families. The JRI legislation could help break the cycle of incarceration which makes it difficult for ex-offenders to live a productive life for themselves and their families.”
Stenhouse told me he used to take what he called “the typical right wing attitude of ‘c’mon, soft on crime,'” he said. “Then I realized there was this whole movement out there on the right called ‘right on crime,’ – the right needs to be right, we don’t need to be harsh,” he said. “Justice reinvestment is what the left calls it, right on crime is what the right calls it. Slowly I came into this.”
Senator Michael McCaffrey, who attended the policy forum at Bryant University, said he was pleased to have the Center’s support. “I don’t think it can hurt,” he said. “Obviously it shows that it’s both sides of the isle that have an interest in the legislation.”
There were three Republican House members at the Center’s policy forum – Michael Chippendale, Foster, Robert Lancia, Cranston, and rookie Bob Quattrocchi, Scituate – each said they were not yet familiar with the bills to know if they support them.
The House never took up the bills last session. Speaker Nick Mattiello said he hopes they are debated earlier in the session this year.
They have already been introduced this year by Rep. Bob Craven, of North Kingstown. This is a good sign for the bills as Craven is a Mattiello loyalist and rarely do House members submit bills without express permission of the speaker.
Nick Horton, who works for OpenDoors, a Providence agency dedicated to providing services and advocacy to people with criminal records, and often covers criminal justice issues for RI Future, wrote last year that the justice reinvestment bills were not perfect but much better than the status quo.
“These provisions were nowhere near as ambitious as the major policy goals laid out at the start of the process,” he wrote. “However, some important though widely supported changes aimed at reducing correctional costs did emerge. These included expanding the criteria for medical parole, which would have enabled greater paroled release of sick and dying inmates. Another important change merely gave the parole board more discretion to impose shorter sentences for parole violations, as requested by the board itself. Another provision created a more formal process for the judiciary to choose to divert criminal cases as it saw fit, another very conditional and discretionary form of reform. Perhaps the most progressive bill, Senate Bill 2935, would have reduced the maximum sentences for certain assaults and larcenies by creating a tiered system based on severity.”