It was three and half years ago, at the Roger Williams University Symposium “Sounding the Alarm on Mass Incarceration” (which I wrote about in RIFuture back in 2013), when Rhode Island started a difficult, ambitious statewide conversation about undertaking major criminal justice reform efforts. Now, at the end of another election cycle, voters that care about racial justice and mass incarceration can reflect on what promises were fulfilled and what promise remains for further reform.
I have worked at OpenDoors, an agency dedicated to providing services and advocacy to people being released from prison, since 2004, and I can say with certainty that this was the most successful period of policy reforms in this field that I have seen over the last three administrations.
In 2016, the chances for real reform did not look as positive, as I wrote in my RIFuture post “A Post Mortem for Probation Reform.” The 2013 Symposium had been followed up the Justice Reinvestment Working Group, staffed by a premier national consulting organization, funded by the Pew foundation, and attended by every relevant branch of Rhode Island government. At the end of the year, the lofty plans for reform had ended in six pieces of legislation that died in committee.
It is not easy to change the criminal justice system, and so it would not have been surprising if the legislation ended there. These are causes which are too easy to label soft on crime, as was done repeatedly by the Attorney General’s Office. But the bills did not get buried–all six bills passed the following year. I was doing a lot of work at the State House in 2016 and 2017, and I observed the way that many stakeholders prioritized this legislation despite it having very little political upside, in particular the Senate and Governor Raimondo’s Office. They spent very real political capital to ultimately pass all six bills in the following 2017 session.
While the final package was far less expansive than the original, it ultimately included some very concrete advances, including: an expanded diversion court that has the potential to replace criminal convictions with diversion, new rules that give the Parole Board more flexibility to be responsive, a process for ending probation early for deserving offenders (this was Judicial not legislative), and specific, measured reductions in the length of prison sentences. I will repeat for emphasis: Rhode Island actually reduced certain prison sentences for some serious crimes, not in a dangerous way, but to ensure the sentences were fair and in line with national practices. Half of the reason for mass incarceration is because of the consistent pattern over the last fifty years for governments to do the opposite, and I cannot actually remember a similar example of sentencing reform during my time here.
This Justice Reinvestment package was an essential step in the right direction, but it was only one part of the number of meaningful reforms passed in the last four years. The Legislature helped push through a number of other essential pieces of legislation, including: the decriminalization of minor driving offenses, three modest expansions of expungement law (misdemeanors, deferred sentences, and decriminalized charges), and the termination of the SR-22 driver’s license insurance requirement. The state also transformed the system for combating overdose and treating opiate dependence, for example by greatly increasing access to Methadone in prison, causing overdose deaths to drop in RI even as they continued to increase in many other states. Notably, in Providence, the city also passed the Community Safety Act, a major reform of police protocols. This was a significant series of meaningful criminal justice reforms, and while they were unfortunately also accompanied by multiple pieces of regressive “tough on crime” legislation, they still stand out as impressive–the most impressive years of reform I have witnessed .
I work daily with people coming out of prison, struggling to make it, and there have already been many individuals whose efforts to stay out of prison were assisted in some real way by these reforms. The new laws have benefited those who have been out for three years successfully and then were granted early termination of probation so they could fully rejoin society; those who got out of prison slightly earlier because a judge or the Parole Board allowed it under the new rules; those who went onto methadone while in prison and so did not overdose upon release. These are not the success stories that will show up on a campaign video, but this is the type of smart reform and cooperative, ambitious governing that we will need if we hope to make an impact on mass incarceration.