It's time for the RI House of Representatives to vote on Justice Reinvestment Legislation
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It's time for the Rhode Island House of Representatives to bring Justice Reinvestment legislation to a vote in order to modernize the way our criminal justice process works and reduce the tax burden on our citizens.
(The following Op-Ed was Originally Published in the Providence Journal on June 7, 2017)
Thomas G. Briody: Justice reform can save R.I. taxpayers millions
It is a rare day when police officers, social workers, judges, defense attorneys, liberals and conservatives can all agree about criminal justice reform in Rhode Island. The conventional wisdom is that “conservative” law enforcement agencies want tough laws, with harsh penalties and tight supervision of criminal defendants, while “liberal” defense lawyers seek leniency and rehabilitation. Social workers and judicial officers usually fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
That’s why a slate of proposed laws called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative is so special. These changes to criminal justice statutes are the legal equivalent of “Man bites dog” instead of “Dog bites man.” Why? Because almost every stakeholder in this field wants these laws passed.
I’m speaking of the Rhode Island State Police, the Providence Police, the Department of Corrections, the Rhode Island state judiciary, the public defender, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Rhode Island State Council of Churches and the AFL-CIO. There are even well known and respected conservative organizations such as the American Conservative Union and the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity. The range of support is breathtaking.
What is the JRI? It is a series of bills aimed at modernizing Rhode Island’s criminal justice system while reducing the cost on taxpayers. Proposed changes include reducing the period of probation for many criminal offenses, expanding pretrial service programs, and authorizing the superior court to create a diversion program — a program that affords worthy, first time offenders the opportunity to avoid a conviction in exchange for community service and substance abuse and mental health counseling. It also allows courts to impose alternative sentences in limited cases.
JRI isn’t new. Last year, a legislative study commission confirmed what savvy police officers and defense attorneys already know: about one-third of pretrial admissions at the Adult Correctional Institutions are alleged probation violators, and 60 percent of sentenced prisoners are jailed for probation violations. Under the current system, the Rhode Island Department of Corrections predicts that the state prison population would grow 11 percent by 2025, costing taxpayers an additional $28 million.
This concept of “justice reinvestment” embraces a sensitive, thoughtful and correct notion: sensible reallocation of criminal justice resources from incarceration to treatment can improve public safety, save money, and still promote rehabilitation and reentry of offenders into society. Few people dispute that incarceration is more expensive than treatment in the community. A June 2016 Council of State Governments report projected a net savings of $3.8 million to the state if these reforms are enacted into law.
This is hardly a “liberal” idea. The federal Department of Justice suggested it during the Bush administration in 2006. Since then, 33 states have completed or are in the process of enacting justice reinvestment. States that have completed the process, including Arizona, Connecticut, Nevada, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin, have all experienced substantial savings and reductions in both prison population and recidivism.
JRI passed the Rhode Island Senate last year and again this year. Gov. Gina Raimondo supports the legislation. It died in the House in the early morning hours on the last day of the 2016 General Assembly.
In 2017, the JRI once again lingers in the House of Representatives. Why? The only serious opposition comes from the office of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. At a February committee hearing, he argued that JRI legislation — the proposed Superior Court diversion program in particular — violated the separation of powers doctrine.
It’s a thin argument, based on a different set of facts arising in a Kentucky Supreme Court case. The AG’s opposition appears rooted in a more basic political concern — the department does not want to cede power to the courts. The current attorney general wants as much control over the process as possible. That’s simply not a valid reason to delay these important reforms.
It’s time to bring this legislation to the House floor for a vote. It is time to modernize the way our criminal justice process works, and to reduce the tax burden on our citizens.
Thomas G. Briody is a Providence-based lawyer, a former television journalist and a past president of the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
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