2016 Legislative Session
When the sun rose and the 2016 legislative session finally concluded around 6 AM on Saturday, June 18th, the ACLU was still at the State House, keeping an eye on the final pieces of legislation making their way through the chambers. The efforts paid off; 2016 saw some important pro-civil liberties legislation make their way to the Governor's desk and, perhaps more importantly, a great number of anti-civil liberties measures die. General Assembly action early on in the year restored the state’s life-saving Good Samaritan law, and the legislative year ended with the Governor's veto of dangerous legislation purportedly aimed at "revenge porn" that carried significant threats to the First Amendment rights of journalists and others who post online. The ACLU monitors every bill considered by the General Assembly and advocates for your civil liberties on hundreds of bills each year. Below is just a small sample of the best and worst bills the General Assembly considered in 2016.
Abortion Health Insurance Ban (H 7467)DIED
Sometimes, simply having a law declared unconstitutional isn’t enough to stop it from impacting people's lives. Unconstitutional statutes linger in the General Laws, causing confusion to those who aren’t versed in constitutional history and – in the case of abortion laws – providing false information to people about their rights. In February, the ACLU testified before the House Corporations committee in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Joseph Almeida (H 7467) removing from the General Laws two provisions regarding health insurance coverage for abortion that were struck down long ago, following challenge by the ACLU. The first required abortion coverage to be offered only as an optional rider, at additional expense to women. The second barred municipalities from offering abortion coverage to their employees. The ACLU urged deletion of both outdated laws. The committee did not vote on the bill before the legislative session concluded.
Insurance Coverage for Abortion (H 7760)DIED
The General Assembly once again considered a spate of anti-abortion legislation, including legislation (H 7760) prohibiting women who get an insurance plan tax credit from buying a plan that includes any abortion coverage beyond life, rape, and incest – with no exception for women’s health. In March, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee that forcing women to buy an abortion insurance rider effectively blocks women struggling to make ends meet from getting the care they need, requiring women to jump through hoops not required for any other medical procedure, even those opposed by people with deeply held religious beliefs. The bill was not voted on before the end of the session, and died.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Health Insurance (H 7513, S 2692 as amended)Passed Senate, Died in House
Nationwide, women have historically been charged more for the same health insurance as men - solely because of their gender - leaving women less able to purchase vital health care coverage. This practice, known as gender rating, became illegal for certain health care plans under the federal Affordable Care Act, but gaps in Rhode Island law may allow the practice to continue. Legislation sponsored by Representative Katherine Kazarian (H 7513) and Senator Susan Sosnowski (S 2692 as amended) would have closed these gaps and ensured gender rating does not occur in Rhode Island, regardless of any changes to federal law. The ACLU testified before the House Corporations committee in support of this legislation in February. The Senate passed this legislation in April, as they have done for the last several years; the House has never moved the legislation out of committee. At the same time, the House also failed to act on Senate-passed legislation proposed by the Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner that would have made numerous changes in the health insurance laws without properly addressing this issue.
Constitutional Convention (H 7670, S 2589)PASSED
In June, the House approved a dangerous resolution calling for a national constitutional convention; the Senate followed shortly thereafter. While proponents of the convention claim it would be limited only to addressing issues raised by the controversial Citizens United decision, legal experts generally agree that once a convention is called there would be no limit to the amendments that could be proposed. For instance, the last time Rhode Island called for a national constitutional convention, it was to propose an amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. The ACLU testified in opposition to the House (H 7670) and Senate (S 2589) versions of the resolution. In 2014, Rhode Island voters rejected a call for a statewide constitutional convention, particularly out of concern for the impact such a convention could have on the rights of women and minority groups; a nationwide convention carries all these same concerns, but with much higher stakes.
Equal Pay (H 7694, S 2635)DIED
The General Assembly again failed to act on legislation elimiating the wage disparity between the sexes. Despite laws to the contrary, women nationwide generally earn just 77% of the wages earned by men, with that percentage dropping significantly for women of color. Legislation sponsored by Representative Joy Hearn (H 7694) and Senator Gayle Goldin (S 2635) sought to address the issue in Rhode Island by making it easier for individuals facing wage differentials to file a civil action against their employer, during which it would be up to the employer to demonstrate that the wage gap was on the basis of something other than sex. The ACLU testified before the House and Senate Labor committees in support of this legislation in March and May, respectively. In 2015, the legislation passed the Senate. This year, neither bill received a committee vote.
Criminal Justice Bills
Human Trafficking (H 7527, S 2413 as amended)Passed Senate, Died in House
Language in legislation to combat human trafficking carried serious potential for unintended consequences, including the further victimization of individuals caught up in trafficking. In February and March, the ACLU testified before the House (H 7257) and Senate (S 2413 as amended) Judiciary committees, respectively, with concerns about the legislation. The bill provided immunity to trafficked minors only if they stated in their defense that they were a trafficking victim – a statement many victims are not ready to make when they are arrested. Other parts of the legislation raised First Amendment concerns, and penalized behavior that was not criminal at the time it was conducted. The legislation also would have turned soliciting prostitution from a misdemeanor into a felony, imposing extremely harsh penalties on individuals engaged in consensual sexual activity. The Senate approved an amended version of this legislation in April, but it failed to move in the House.
Unauthorized Computer Access (H 7406A, S 2584)DIED
As part of a package of computer crimes legislation put forward by the Attorney General's office, whistleblowers or spouses who guessed a computer password could have faced up to five years in prison. In February and March, the ACLU testified before the House (H 7406 A) and Senate (S 2584) Judiciary committees, respectively, in opposition to broadly worded legislation that treated whistleblowers and overzealous spouses the same as malicious hackers, subjecting them to felony penalties for gaining "unauthorized access" to a computer. The ACLU noted that similarly broad wording in federal legislation has been used to punish exactly these individuals. In May, the House Judiciary committee approved an amended version of the legislation that failed to address the ACLU's concerns, but the bill was never brought before the full House. The bill failed to move in the Senate at all.
Juvenile Sentencing (H 7676, S 2846)DIED
In March, the ACLU testified in support of legislation by Representative Christopher Blazejewski (H 7676) and Senator Harold Metts (S 2846) ensuring juveniles given lengthy prison sentences would have the opportunity to appear before the parole board within fifteen years after the start of their sentence. Experts agree that juveniles have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, are more vulnerable to peer pressure, and are less capable than adults of perceiving and comprehending long term consequences. Yet, Rhode Island law continues to permit very long and even life without parole sentences of juveniles. The ACLU testified that ensuring individuals sentenced as juveniles come up for parole no later than fifteen years from the start of their sentence ensures they be given a chance to demonstrate the progress they have made to the parole board - who can make a determination whether or not the person is ready for release - early into their adulthood. Similar parole eligibility is supported by a wide range of groups including the American Bar Association, American Correctional Association, and American Probation and Parole Association. The bill was never voted on by either committee.
Justice ReinvestmentPassed Senate, Died in House
The General Assembly seemed poised to pass a number of important bills aimed at improving the criminal justice system. Among these bills were legislation clarifying the definition of misdemeanor and felony, and amending the appropriate penalties (H 8186, S 2935), legislation adjusting the way probation and parole are done (H 8205, S 2934), and legislation establishing a Superior Court diversion program (H 8172, S 2933). The package of six bills sprang from the Governor's Justice Reinvestment Working Group, and followed nearly a year's worth of work between government officials and community advocates. Each of these bills passed the Senate but, in a disappointing turn of events, the House failed to act on any of the legislation before the end of the session and each of the bills died.
Due Process Bills
Overdue Court Fees (H 7830, S 2505)PASSED
Individuals owing overdue court fees may soon find their names on a public list shaming scofflaws -- even if the fees are minor, decades old, or even inaccurate -- without prior notification. In March, the ACLU testified before the House (H 7830) and Senate (S 2505) Judiciary committees in opposition to legislation repealing a requirement that the court notify individuals who have outstanding fees prior to placing their name on a public web site. Without prior notification, many people owing fees – or who court records erroneously list as owing fees – may find themselves humiliated when a family member or potential employer Googles their name and finds them labeled as a deadbeat by the State of Rhode Island. The Senate approved the legislation in March. In April, the ACLU wrote to the Rhode Island Judiciary asking them to withdraw their support of the legislation, citing media reports of individuals receiving notices when they were unaware they owed fees to begin with. Unfortunately, the House Judiciary committee approved the legislation just days later. The bill became law without the Governor's signature in May.
Free Speech Bills
“Revenge Porn” (H 7537, S 2540)VETOED
Another part of the Attorney General's package of computer crimes legislation was a bill to make the simple sharing online of certain images a crime. In February and March, the ACLU testified before the House (H 7537) and Senate (S 2540) Judiciary committees, respectively, that the legislation would criminalize the retweeting or reposting online of nude images -- including newsworthy images like those disseminated from Abu Ghraib without the direct consent of the person in the image. The prohibition applied even if the picture was initially taken and shared consensually. In addition, the legislation contained no requirement that sharing the images actually cause harm or emotional distress to anybody. As a result, the legislation made a criminal out of any person who shared online even newsworthy images. The Senate approved the legislation in May, as they have done for the last few years; the House followed in June. Recognizing the significant First Amendment implications of this legislation, and following requests from the ACLU, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the RI Press Association and the Media Coalition, Governor Raimondo vetoed this legislation. Read her veto letter here.
State Contract Restrictions on Boycotts (H 7736)PASSED
In June, the House and Senate approved legislation (H 7736) barring the state from entering into a contract with any business engaged in a boycott against various "foreign states." In May, the ACLU testified that the legislation carries serious First Amendment implications and could be used to chill the free speech of state contractors. Boycotts by businesses are clearly protected by the First Amendment when they are used to bring about social change, but this legislation appears to restrict the ability of state contractors to engage in such boycotts. Discouraging businesses from engaging in political speech such as boycotts, out of fear that such a boycott will cost them a state contract, causes an improper chilling effect that, the ACLU argued, was unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the General Assembly disagreed. The ACLU has asked Governor Raimondo to veto this legislation.
Cyberstalking and Cyberharassment (H 7763, S 2630)DIED
As a final part of the Attorney General's computer crimes package, the General Assembly considered legislation overhauling the state’s prohibition on cyberstalking and cyberharrassment. Under current law, an individual may be penalized for cyberstalking and cyberharrassment only if they have committed a series of acts online specifically intended to harass and individual or their family. In March, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees that under this legislation (H 7763, S 2630), one single act online that is then used by others to justify harassment would be criminal, holding individuals accountable for the actions of others even if they meant no harm with their original post. As such, the legislation raised serious First Amendment concerns and would likely have a chilling effect on any communication via the Internet. Similar legislation has been introduced, but never passed, for the last several years; the legislation was not voted on this year either.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
E-Verify (H 7217, S 2320, S 2412)DIED
The federal E-Verify program remains dependent on a system plagued with errors and misinformation, leaving nearly 10 percent of foreign-born citizens incorrectly deemed ineligible to work. Despite laws prohibiting pre-screening, up to 47 percent of employers have used E-Verify to pre-screen, and it is disproportionately workers of color or those with foreign-sounding last names who are disqualified as a result of name mismatches. For these reasons, the ACLU in January testified before the House Labor committee (H 7217) and in May before the Senate Judiciary committee (S 2320, S 2412) in opposition to legislation requiring most Rhode Island employers to participate in the E-Verify program. No bill received a committee vote.
Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants (H 7610, S 2333)DIED
In March and May, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees, respectively, in support of legislation (H 7610, S 2333) permitting the issuance of driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. Current law requires a social security number before obtaining a driver’s licenses; this legislation would allow for identity verification using a number of other factors, including a utility bill. Ensuring that individuals who are capable of driving safely can do so will keep the roads safer by enabling these individuals to obtain driver’s training and have their training skills evaluated on a regular basis, while also allowing them to obtain automobile insurance. The legislation, sponsored by Representative Anastasia Williams and Senator Frank Ciccone, further included a number of protections to ensure that licenses cannot be used to harass undocumented immigrants or to seek information on those individuals who have legally obtained licenses. Similar legislation has been introduced for the past several years but never acted on. Neither bill received a vote this year.
Medical Privacy Bills
Health Information Exchange (H 7866, S 2898)PASSED
When Rhode Island created its Health Information Exchange in 2008, it did so with explicit promises that it would strictly limit how patients’ medical information in the exchange could be shared. In 2016, the General Assembly greatly expanded the entities that have access to the exchange, including granting access to broadly defined health plans for purposes totally unrelated to direct medical care, the original goal of the Exchange. In April, the ACLU testified before the House committee on Health, Education and Welfare (H 7866) that such disclosure goes far beyond what was originally intended for the Exchange - and what those who opted-in to the Exchange agreed to share - and carries serious implications for the medical privacy of all Rhode Islanders whose information remains within the Exchange. Both that bill and its Senate companion (S 2898) were passed by their respective chambers in May, and the legislation was signed into law in June.
Warrantless Prescription Access (H 7518, S 2713)DIED
In April, the House committee on Health, Education and Welfare approved dangerous legislation (H 7518) granting law enforcement access to the prescription information of thousands of Rhode Islanders without a warrant; the Senate Judiciary committee followed (S 2713) in May. Presently, access to the state's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PMP) is severely limited, and law enforcement must have a warrant before viewing prescription information. That's because the PMP contains personally-identifiable prescription information for every scheduled medication doled out in the state, including painkillers, anti-seizure medication, mood stabilizers, diet pills, and sleep aids. The PMP's purpose is to facilitate patient care and help doctors recognize addictive behavior in their patients, not to serve as a law enforcement database. In March, the ACLU testified before House HEW and the Senate Judiciary committee that this legislation allowed nothing less than data-mining, undermining efforts to view the opioid crisis as a medical problem and leaving doctors and chronic pain sufferers particularly subject to suspicion and investigation solely because of out-of-context prescription records. Following continued advocacy by the ACLU, along with members of the medical community including the Rhode Island Medical Society, the bill was sent back to committee in the House and never received a Senate floor vote; as such, the legislation died.
Compassionate Care (H 7659, S 2709)DIED
Legislation sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello (H 7659) sought to make Rhode Island the next state to adopt “death with dignity” legislation, allowing terminal patients to seek medication to end their lives. In March, the ACLU submitted testimony to the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in support of this legislation. The ACLU noted that, while some individuals facing terminal illnesses may choose to pursue aggressive medical treatment others, in conjunction with their families and their doctors, wish to end their lives with dignity. By rejecting the validity of that second option, Rhode Island law interferes in private medical decisions, severely limiting the autonomy of patients and their families to determine the appropriate course of care. The bill was not voted on before the end of the legislative session. Similar legislation by Senator Gayle Goldin (S 2709) did not receive a hearing before the Senate Judiciary committee.
Open Government Bills
Administrative Procedures Act (H 7314, S 2715)DIED
The General Assembly considered closing a loophole that allows your basic election processes to change behind closed doors. Currently, the state Board of Elections is virtually the only major state agency exempt from the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires state agencies to adopt rules and regulations through an open, public process. As a result, the Board can modify how elections take place in Rhode Island without having to inform the public or accept public input. In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Carlos Tobon (H 7314) to eliminate this exemption. The ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in support of companion legislation by Senator Stephen Archambault (S 2715) in April. Similar legislation passed the full Senate in 2015, but the bill failed to move out of either committee this year.
Access to Public Records (H 7973, S 2308)DIED
The General Assembly considered, but did not act on, revisions to the state's law governing public records. The Access to Public Records Act dictates when public entities can keep documents from public view, and the rights of the public to view or obtain other documents; despite updates in 2013, an audit by the ACLU and other groups concerned with transparency in government found the law’s enforcement policies insufficient to ensure compliance from dozens of agencies. In April, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees, respectively, in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Robert Craven (H 7973) and Senator Stephen Archambault (S 2308) to make it easier for the public to obtain documents of public concern. Among other provisions, the legislation would have clarified when documents such as arrest reports and correspondence by elected officials could be exempt from release, required bodies to note the reasons for withholding any document, required public bodies prominently feature their public records policies on their websites, and allowed courts to impose stronger penalties on those bodies that improperly withhold documents. Neither bill received a committee vote.
Police Practices Bills
Civil Asset Forfeiture (H 7396)DIED
If you’re stopped by the police today, you could lose your money or your home – even if you’re never arrested. Currently, police agencies can confiscate the assets of a person suspected of having committed certain offenses whether or not that person is ever convicted or even charged. Those belongings then become the property of law enforcement, and can be sold with the proceeds going to the police. The burden is on the innocent property owner to get the money or property back by proving it was not unlawfully earned. This process, known as civil asset forfeiture, not only undermines the presumption of innocence – where the state has to prove someone has engaged in criminal activity – but also gives police an incentive to care as much about profit as about public safety. In March, the ACLU testified in support of legislation sponsored by House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (H 7396) to limit this practice by requiring an individual to be convicted of an offense before their assets can be relinquished, and ensuring that co-owners of assets are not unfairly punished. The bill did not receive a committee vote.
Police Body Cameras (H 7198)DIED
Over the last few years, use by law enforcement of body cameras has exploded. Body cameras can have some significant benefits to law enforcement and the community; they can help protect against police misconduct, can protect law enforcement against false allegations of abuse, and can help police and the public glean lessons from the positive and negative interactions between law enforcement and the community every day. At the same time, police body cameras can have significant drawbacks. Absent the right protections – including assurances as to when the cameras may be turned on and off, when and how the information collected by the cameras may be used, and who may have access to it – body cameras can ineffectual or invade the privacy of people at their most vulnerable moments. In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Joseph Almeida (H 7198) laying out the acceptable use of body cameras and placing restrictions on the use and release of the collected data. The ACLU noted the importance of having a statewide law regarding body camera use, to ensure all police departments use the cameras in the same predictable manner, and urged the General Assembly to adopt such legislation before body camera programs go into effect in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, the bill died without receiving a vote.
Administrative Subpoenas (H 7542, S 2631)PASSED
In 2011, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law allowing law enforcement to obtain an individual’s Internet subscriber information from Internet service providers without a warrant when investigating a variety of computer-related crimes; in 2016, the General Assembly expanded the offenses for which this is an option. This new legislation (H 7542, S 2631) gives the police unilateral authority, without court review, to obtain Internet subscriber information on new crimes including “online impersonation,” a law that already raises serious First Amendment concerns. In February and March the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees, respectively, that a warrant is a fundamental due process provision that places an important check on police investigations, and ensures that a third party evaluate the strength of law enforcement’s probable cause. Unfortunately, both chambers approved their versions of the legislation in May, and the Governor signed them into law in June.
Prisoners' Rights Bills
Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners (H 7613, S 2317)DIED
In March, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Shelby Maldonado (H 7613) and Senator Erin Lynch Prata (S 2317) to strengthen the state’s limitation on shackling pregnant incarcerated women. The physical restraint of pregnant inmates during transport, labor, delivery and recovery is viewed as a major human rights and civil rights concern, within the United States and internationally. A restrained pregnant woman cannot move freely or control her balance, placing both her and her fetus at risk. Thanks to ACLU-proposed legislation enacted in 2011, Rhode Island law generally prohibits the shackling of pregnant women during transport to a medical facility, labor, delivery or postpartum recovery, recent review of the law revealed some gaps that may leave pregnant prisoners vulnerable. This legislation would expand the law to prohibit shackling during transport to or from a court proceeding during a pregnant inmate’s third trimester, when their mobility and balance are significantly limited. The bill did not receive a committee vote, and died. Read the facts about the bill here.
Solitary Confinement (H 7481, S 2318)Study Commission Approved
In March and April, the ACLU gave testimony to the Senate and House Judiciary committees, respectively, in support of legislation limiting the use of solitary confinement. Long-term isolation is expensive, ineffective, and exacerbates mental illness even in inmates who had no known illness prior to entering isolation. States nationwide have begun to realize that other alternatives are more effective in protecting public safety - as the majority of inmates held in segregation will be released not only back into the general population, but released from prison entirely. Legislation by Representative Aaron Regunberg (H 7481) and Senator Harold Metts (S 2318) would have allowed Rhode Island to join the tide of states finding other, more effective, alternatives to behavior correction behind prison walls. In May, the House Judiciary committee approved legislation by Representative Regunberg (H 8206 A) instead establishing a study commission to investigate the use of solitary confinement in Rhode Island, and potential alternatives.
Location Tracking (H 7167, S 2403)PASSED
Approximately every seven seconds, the cell phone you carry pings the nearest tower to give you the best cellular service. These pings are recorded by your telecommunications provider, and allow your location to be pinpointed within fifty meters, even if your GPS is not on. This information paints a complete picture of your life, and can be made available to law enforcement at their simple request. In June, the House and Senate approved legislation sponsored by Representative Edie Ajello (H 7167A) and Senator Donna Nesselbush (S 2403A) requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before requesting location information, except in emergencies dealing with the threat of death or serious physical injury. The ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of this legislation in February, and before the Senate Judiciary committee in March. In 2013, the General Assembly made it even easier for telecommunications companies to share cell phone location information with any entity, for any reason, making this legislation all the more necessary to protect privacy.
Automated Toll Collection (H 7409A as amended, S 2246A as amended)PASSED
Drivers on Rhode Island’s highways will soon have their movements tracked under the state’s RhodeWorks toll legislation, signed into law in February. While the legislation itself (H 7409A as amended, S 2246A as amended) mentions nothing about the technology authorized by this law, testimony by DOT Director Peter Alviti before the General Assembly revealed the DOT intends to use automated license plate readers (ALPRs) to track the movements of large trucks – and, though not for toll purposes, every other vehicle on Rhode Island’s highways. ALPRs are high-powered cameras that capture the license plate, date, time, and GPS location of every vehicle that passes by, even across several lanes of traffic and at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. As a result, ALPRs memorialize a comprehensive map of every car’s movements throughout the day. Despite this incredible intrusion on privacy, the law is silent to the storage or use of the data; law enforcement can store the data infinitely, access it without a warrant, and the DOT can even sell it to a third party if desired. A last-minute amendment to put some privacy protections in place was defeated on the floor. Despite assurances from House leadership that privacy protections would be put into place, if necessary, no such laws were passed before the legislature concluded its business.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Background Checks for Employment (varied)
Following the passage three years ago of “Ban the Box” legislation that prohibited employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal record at the time of application, the General Assembly has nonetheless considered – and generally approved – broad background check requirements for a wide range of jobs and professions. It initially appeared that the 2016 General Assembly would follow the same pattern, dedicated to making it more difficult for ex-offenders to find gainful employment – often the most significant factor in whether a person will return to jail. However, in a win for the rights of ex-offenders, most of that legislation was left on the table or revised.
In January, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in opposition to legislation expanding the state’s background check process for massage therapists (H 7007), by giving municipalities the power to grant employers access to a person’s entire criminal record. Currently, the law states that employers can be made aware only of the existence of certain disqualifying offenses, ensuring that individuals are disqualified only for those offenses directly related to their job. This legislation would have undermined that law by excluding a person from work as a massage therapist for long-distant offenses that had no bearing on their fitness as a massage therapist. An amended version of the legislation - taking into account some of the ACLU's concerns (H 7007 A) - was passed into law in June.
The House also passed - but the Senate did not act on - legislation (H 7636 A) requiring every volunteer of every agency that serves children to receive a background check. The legislation included few specifics on who should receive a background check or what crimes could be considered disqualifying, and included no ability for volunteers to demonstrate how they have changed since their long-distant conviction. The ACLU testified before the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in opposition to this legislation in March.
Finally, the House took no action on a troubling Senate bill that would have given the Department of Children, Youth and Families the authority to demand information about the expunged criminal records of job applicants and volunteers.
Sex Offenders Bills
Homeless Sex Offenders (S 2319)Passed Senate, Died in House
Following passage last year of legislation to prohibit level III sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, the state has seen an increase in the number of homeless and potentially homeless sex offenders. In June, the Senate approved legislation (S 2319A) to further target sex offenders and the shelter staff members who help them. This legislation required homeless sex offenders – who are already required to register – to disclose their offender status to the homeless shelter. The legislation then required the shelter to contact law enforcement and disclose the name and information of every offender in the shelter, every time they check in for the night. In March, the ACLU testified that this legislation served only to further stigmatize homeless sex offenders who are already abiding by their responsibility to register, and that forcing shelter workers to continually report on sex offenders' whereabouts is an onerous and inappropriate burden that takes them away from their primary responsibility - to provide care for the state's homeless population. Although the Senate approved the legislation, it was never sent across to the House and died.
Students Rights Bills
The School-to-Prison Pipeline (H 7056, H 7057, S 2168)PASSED
Even as consensus grows nationwide that out-of-school suspensions carry a lifetime of ill effects and should only be used for the most serious offenses, Rhode Island’s students are routinely suspended from school for small infractions that pose no risk of physical harm or serious distraction to their peers. The ACLU has demonstrated for the past several years that the tremendous overuse of suspensions in Rhode Island’s schools leaves students of color and students with disabilities disproportionately affected, particularly for the less-serious “subjective” offenses. As a result, these students are disproportionately subjected to the serious consequences that follow from even one suspension, including an increased likelihood of dropping out and, later, incarceration. In June, the General Assembly approved legislation sponsored by Representative Grace Diaz (H 7056 as amended) and Senator Juan Pichardo (S 2168 as amended) tackling this “school-to-prison pipeline” by requiring that suspensions be served in-school, unless the student poses a physical risk or serious distraction to other students, and requiring school districts to examine their discipline data annually and come up with plans to mitigate any disproportionate suspension rates that may exist. Similar legislation passed both the House and Senate in 2015, but died when neither chamber approved the other chamber’s bill. This year, both chambers approved each other's legislation in time for the bills to head to the Governor's desk and be signed into law in June.
School Computer Privacy (H 7675, S 2171)DIED
As technology becomes more ubiquitous, schools statewide have begun handing out school-owned computers for at home. Although these devices are used in the home, they carry virtually no privacy protections and some schools have even informed children the computers are subject to monitoring any time, even by remote access. Legislation sponsored by Representative Brian Kennedy (H 7675) and Senator Adam Satchell (S 2171) would have allowed Rhode Island to avoid the problems faced by other states, by clarifying that the devices may only be searched when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the child has engaged in misconduct, prohibiting remote access except in limited circumstances, and allowing parents to opt their child out of such one-to-one technology programs entirely. The ACLU testified before the House Judiciary and Senate Education committees in support of both bills in March, but neither received a committee vote.
Internet Filtering of School Computers (H 7583 A, S 2172 A)PASSED
Students may soon find it easier to complete their assignments at school, instead of having their research stymied by overzealous filtering software. Statewide, Internet filters used by school districts block considerably more information than is required by federal law, often without prior warning, derailing classroom lessons and hindering the ability of students to complete homework. Legislation sponsored by Representative Art Handy (H 7583 A) and Senator Adam Satchell (S 2172 A), passed by both chambers in June, will lessen these barriers by requiring schools maintain a detailed written policy regarding the use of their filters, including guarantees that teachers can have websites unblocked in an expedient fashion, and requiring districts to reevaluate requests for unblocking annually to determine if any changes to the filter must be made. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation before the Senate Education committee in February and the House Health, Education and Welfare committee in March. Similar legislation passed both the House and Senate in 2015, but died on a technicality when neither chamber approved the opposite chamber’s bill before the legislative session’s close.
Student Press Freedom (H 7677, S 2899)DIED
The General Assembly considered, but did not act on, legislation ensuring that student newspapers share the same press freedom as other newspapers. Introduced following work by the Providence Student Union, the legislation sponsored by Representative Jay O'Grady (H 7677) and Senator Gayle Goldin (S 2899), restricted the ability of schools to censor the content of student-run newspapers, except in certain narrowly-tailored circumstances. In March and May, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees, respectively, in support of this legislation. The ACLU has, over the years, defended the rights of a number of students whose work was censored. Unfortunately, neither committee took action on the legislation before the session ended, and the bills died.
Voting Rights Bills
Comprehensive Election Reform (H 7249, S 2719)DIED
Rhode Island has grappled for a number of years with several election issues, including questions of when and how recounts can be conducted, how votes are counted, and even how the rules regarding elections are made. In January, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of perennial legislation by Representative Edie Ajello (H 7249) to make comprehensive changes to the election laws and resolve these long-standing issues. The ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee on the Senate version, sponsored by Senator Elizabeth Crowley (S 2719), in March. Among other things, the bill would ensure every vote is counted in an open and transparent manner, increase the number of provisional ballots counted, and require post-election audits to evaluate the accuracy of voting machines. Neither bill received a vote in either chamber.
Electronic Voter Registration (H 7024, S 2513 as amended)PASSED
In March, Governor Raimondo signed into law Rhode Island's new electronic voter registration law. While an increasing amount of business is conducted online, becoming a registered voter or changing your registration in Rhode Island still has to be done in person or through the mail. This legislation, sponsored by Representative Aaron Regunberg (H 7024) and Senator Gayle Goldin (S 2513 as amended), will allow voters to easily register and keep their registration up to date, and includes a number of critical protections for the privacy of personal voter information. In addition, this legislation has been hailed by the national ACLU as a "voting precedent every state should follow," because, following ACLU advocacy, this legislation includes the nation's first language specifically making online registration accessible to voters with disabilities.
Early Voting (H 7248, S 2358)DIED
While a majority of the states have a process for in-person early voting, Rhode Island’s voters remain restricted to voting on Election Day, although in recent years the General Assembly has expanded the opportunities for absentee voting. Previous general elections have brought long lines and discouraged voters, undoubtedly discouraging Rhode Islanders from making their voices heard at the polls. In January, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee on a slew of election-related legislation, including in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Christopher Blazejewski to join the 37 other states that currently have an in-person early voting system. The ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of companion legislation by Senator Erin Lynch Prata (S 2358) in March. The legislation was not voted on in either chamber.
Prison-Based Gerrymandering (H 7400, S 2310)Passed Senate, Died in House
When it comes to drawing new voting districts, any individuals incarcerated at the ACI in Cranston on the day the Census worker comes through are recorded as living on Howard Avenue at the prison, including individuals awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences who are still allowed to vote -- but from the address of their prior residence, not the ACI. As a result, Cranston is overrepresented in the General Assembly, while the districts from where the prisoners hail are underrepresented. Under the current plan, approximately 15% of House District 20 is comprised of voters who cannot vote in Cranston. (In May, a federal judge sided with the ACLU in litigation about prison-based gerrymandering at the local level, as 25% of Ward 6 in Cranston is comprised of prisoners.) In February, the ACLU testified before the House Judiciary committee in support of legislation sponsored by Representative Anastasia Williams (H 7400) to rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes only, at their last known address. In April, the Senate Judiciary committee approved companion legislation, sponsored by Senator Harold Metts (S 2310). The full Senate has passed the legislation for the last two years. This year, the legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary committee, but did not receive a floor vote. The House did not act on the bill at all.
War on Drugs Bills
Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention (H 7003, S 2002)PASSED
The General Assembly acted quickly in 2016 to restore the life-saving Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act, which expired in 2015 when the legislature failed to reauthorize the law. In July 2015, the law’s protection against arrest for certain drug crimes of those who call 911 in the event of an overdose disappeared, leaving people torn between saving lives and spending time in jail. In the first weeks of the 2016 session, the House and Senate approved legislation sponsored by Representative Robert Craven (H 7003) and Senator Michael McCaffrey (S 2002) not only restoring those protections but expanding them. The new law ensures that individuals on probation or parole cannot be considered to have violated their probation or parole if they call for help in the case of an overdose. Governor Raimondo signed the legislation into law on January 27th, restoring the state’s commitment to saving lives instead of prosecuting drug-dependent individuals.
Juvenile Marijuana Use (H 7362, S 2544)PASSED
When Rhode Island decriminalized marijuana just a few years ago, it did so in part to keep youth possessing small amounts of marijuana out of jail and away from the lifetime of consequences a drug conviction can bring. This year, the General Assembly approved legislation, submitted on behalf of the Attorney General, undermining that effort by placing juveniles caught with marijuana back in front of a Family Court judge instead of the Traffic Tribunal. In March, the ACLU testified before the House committee on Health, Education and Welfare (H 7362) and Senate Judiciary committee (S 2544) that once a child is in Family Court, the judge can impose any number of requirements upon the juvenile and incarcerate them when they do not follow through. Once a child is placed in the Family Court jurisdiction it can be very difficult for them to disentangle themselves; the disastrous result can be that the child spends time in the Training School for behavior which Rhode Island otherwise imposes a simple fine. The Senate passed this legislation in June; the House followed shortly thereafter.
Sick Tax (H 7454 - Article 14)PASSED
An article in the Governor's budget threatened the state’s medical marijuana program and the ability of patients and cardholders to afford necessary medication. Among other provisions, the article originally imposed a tax of between $150 and $350 for each plant grown, reduced the number of plants each patient can grow, and eliminated the ability of patients or caregivers to provide their excess marijuana to other patients. The ACLU testified in opposition to this article before the House and Senate Finance committees. Earlier this year, we joined with medical marijuana patients to raise concerns about this article, noting, "the patients and caregivers affected by this proposal grow medical marijuana to ease their symptoms and to help others; they are not running a lucrative drug trade. The state should treat them just as they would any other patient using legal medication." The version of this Article approved by the House Finance committee, and ultimately included in the FY 2017 budget in June, removed the plant restrictions and sets the tax at $25 per plant.
Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana (H 7752, S 2420)DIED
In April and May, the ACLU testified before the House and Senate Judiciary committees, respectively, in support of legislation by Represenative Scott Slater (H 7762) and Senator Josh Miller (S 2420) to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana use by adults. The “War on Drugs” has resulted in an astronomical number of individuals in jail instead of treatment, and a disproportionate arrest rate for black individuals even though black and white individuals use marijuana at roughly the same rate. Current prohibition practices have resulted in overcrowded prisons, not the reduction of drug use or exposure of children to drugs. This legislation would have allowed for the production of marijuana and sale only to adults over the age of 21, making it more difficult for drugs to get in the hands of children while emphasizing drug treatment over incarceration and avoiding the disproportionate drug criminalizing of black and Hispanic users. Neither bill received a committee vote.
Medical Marijuana for PTSD (H 7142, S 2115)PASSED
The General Assembly approved important legislation allowing individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to ease their symptoms using medical marijuana. In February and April, the ACLU testified bfore the Senate Health and Human Services and House Judiciary committees, respectively, in support of this legislation, sponsored by Representative Scott Slater (H 7142) and Senator Stephen Archambault (S 2115). The ACLU noted that many individuals suffering from PTSD - including returned veterans - have reported significant relief from marijuana use, but that Rhode Island law previously prohibited them from legally obtaining the medication. In 2015, similar bills were approved by both the House and Senate, but were not approved by the opposite chamber before the session's end. This year, the General Assembly cleared all the necessary procedural hurdles to allow the proposal to become law.