After five years of struggling, civil rights advocates won a huge victory when probation violation reform legislation became law on Saturday, June 12th.
In simple terms, the bill bans the state from keeping people in prison on probation violations for crimes that are never proven.
Makes sense, right?
Well, along with Alabama and South Dakota, Rhode Island had one of the worst probation violation laws in America. Thus, a person serving probation who was charged with another crime was considered guilty of violating the terms of his or her probation, regardless of the outcome of any adjudication of that crime.
As a result, a person on probation could have been sent back to prison for the full length of his or her suspended sentence even if no conviction ever resulted from the second charge. Often, people accused of probation violations would plead to a lesser offense, even if they were innocent of the accusation that caused the violation, because being innocent of the crime that resulted in the probation violation was not a defense that would prevent them from going back to jail on the violation itself.
Thus, the bill now requires the dismissal of any probation violation or violation of a suspended sentence that is based on a new criminal charge for which the defendant is not convicted within a reasonable period of time, or is acquitted or dismissed.
Watch this video to see how this unjust law effected so many lives in Rhode Island.
This legislation had passed the General Assembly for each of the last two years but been vetoed by the governor each time. The bill had also been annually opposed by Attorney General Patrick Lynch (but was supported by former Attorney General Jim O’Neil).
This legislation is a great step forward for Rhode Island.
Rhode Island had the most heavy-handed probation laws in the country. Sentences are longer than average and it’s far easier than in most places to end up back in prison for a new offense. Violation hearings are held before the trial, so defendants have little time to line up a real defense, and charges are adjudicated at the lowest standard of proof in our legal system. And then, even if you’re later found not guilty of the act that underpinned your violation, you were forced to rot in your cell with no recourse.
Now, thanks to Senator Perry, Representative Segal and a host of community advocates such as Open Doors and DARE, the system has approved and justice has prevailed.
This is what democracy looks like.