legislation enacted in 2017 aimed at promoting criminal justice reform, the
Rhode Island General Assembly’s 2018 session took significant steps back from a
“smart justice” approach by adding more than a dozen new felonies to the books
and increasing sentences for several other crimes.
expansion of the “Statehouse-to-prison pipeline” was the disappointing finding
of an ACLU report issued today,
updating an extensive analysis of RI lawmaking on criminal
justice that the organization issued in January. That
earlier report examined the problems of mass incarceration and
overcriminalization that result from the state’s routine passage of laws that
create new crimes and add sentences to existing crimes – in the absence of any
analysis to support the expansions. Between 2000 and 2017, that earlier report
found, the General Assembly created more than 170 new crimes.
report found a return to those ways, with legislative action in 2018 adding to
“the ongoing upward trend of creating new crimes, adding harsher sentences, and
sending more and more people to prison while doing nothing to stem that tide.”
The updated report, “Justice De-Investment: The Regrettable Expansion of the
Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline in 2018,” highlighted several especially
problematic examples of this year’s lawmaking on crimes.
report was particularly critical of what it called a “major step backwards” in
criminal justice reform, with the enactment of two laws imposing mandatory
minimum sentences on certain second offenders. As is widely noted in
criminal justice research, mandatory minimums undermine judicial discretion and
give prosecutors greater power to coerce plea deals out of defendants who may
be innocent. It had been many years since the General Assembly last enacted
bills imposing such sentences.
report also documented a continuation of other deleterious trends that had been
cited in the January study, such as arbitrariness in both the length of prison
sentences and the financial penalties imposed, and the creation of crimes for
conduct already addressed by existing criminal laws.
reviewing the many criminal laws enacted this session, the report expressed
dismay that the lack of a “smart justice” approach to crime came on the heels
of the General Assembly’s passage in 2017 of legislation aimed at reforming
RI’s criminal justice system. The report concludes with a plea to RI lawmakers
to make good in 2019 on the promises of “justice reinvestment,” rather than
continue with an ineffective, expensive, and counter-productive approach to