2015 Legislative Session
The 2015 General Assembly Session is underway and the ACLU of Rhode Island has been actively reviewing and testifying on a number of bills that have serious implications--either good or bad--for civil liberties in Rhode Island. The issues we weigh in on range from police practices, the "war on drugs", and privacy to students' rights, First Amendment rights, and open government. While we draft and support a number of bills to strengthen individual rights and freedoms, we also fight legislation that threatens civil liberties in some way. This page is frequently updated as bills move through the legislature, so check back often to keep up-to-date on these important bills.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Health Insurance
Nationwide, women have historically been charged more than men for the same health insurance, disproportionately impacting the ability of women to purchase vital coverage. Although recent changes to health care law at the federal level have made that process largely illegal, certain provisions remain that perpetuate this discrimination. The General Assembly will consider a bill, sponsored by Sen. Susan Sosnowski and Rep. Katherine Kazarian, to rectify these issues and make sure no Rhode Islander is charged more for health care simply because of their gender. The bill passed the Senate last year.
Veterans’ Housing Discrimination
Some veterans in the state have reported facing discrimination in housing based solely on their veterans’ status. Currently, nothing in Rhode Island law prevents such discrimination. The General Assembly will this year consider legislation supported by the ACLU and housing advocates to make discrimination on the basis of veteran status illegal. The legislation passed the House last year, but died in the Senate after the R.I. Association of Realtors raised objections. That group has now withdrawn its opposition, and the ACLU is hopeful this will lead to passage of the bill this session.
Criminal Justice Bills
Juvenile Life Without Parole
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court banned states from imposing on juvenile offenders a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole. However, states retain the discretion to impose it on a case-by-case basis. Under a bill introduced by Sen. Gayle Goldin, however, that penalty would be off-limits altogether for juvenile defendants. As the Supreme Court noted, adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences,” and juveniles who commit their crimes at that age should not be treated as being forever incapable of rehabilitation.
Open Government Bills
Administrative Procedures Act
While most state agencies are required by a state law known as the Administrative Procedures Act to adopt rules and regulations through a public process, the state Board of Elections is inexplicably exempt from the law. As a result, the Board can adopt regulations governing our basic election process without having to go through a public notice or hearing process, all but eliminating the ability of the public to weigh in. Virtually no other major state agency is exempt from the APA; legislation introduced this year by Rep. Carlos Tobon and Sen. Stephen Archambault would remove the Board of Election’s exemption.
Police Practices Bills
Civil Asset Forfeiture
Under current law, police agencies can confiscate the money and property of a person suspected of having committed certain offenses, whether or not the person is ever convicted or even charged. Those belongings then become the property of law enforcement, and can be kept or sold with the proceeds going to those agencies. The burden is on the innocent property owner to get the money or property back by proving it was not unlawfully earned. This process not only undermines the presumption of innocence, it also gives policing an incentive to care as much about profit as about public safety. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry has submitted a bill to limit this practice, known as civil asset forfeiture, through a bill 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.
It is virtually guaranteed that the average Rhode Islander is carrying a cell phone at any given time. At the same time, it is virtually guaranteed that the cell phone is transmitting the location of that cell phone in almost real time, and that telecommunications companies can store that information and release it to law enforcement at will. In 2013, the General Assembly passed a law inadvertently making it even easier for telecommunications companies to share cell phone location information. This year, the General Assembly will again consider ACLU-supported legislation, introduced by Rep. Edie Ajello and Sen. Donna Nesselbush, ensuring location information can be obtained only with a warrant, except in circumstances involving the risk of death or serious physical injury.
Students Rights Bills
Internet Filtering of School Computers
The unrestrained use of Internet filtering software by schools leaves teachers unable to use their prepared lesson plans and students sometimes unable to complete their assignments. With little information as to what web sites are filtered, and no procedures in place for teachers to unblock information, use of the Internet often remains a frustration in the classroom instead of a useful educational tool. The General Assembly will consider an ACLU bill, sponsored by Rep. Art Handy, requiring school districts to craft policies and procedures governing the use of filtering software and the timely unblocking of websites when requested.
School Computer Privacy
As technology becomes more ubiquitous, schools have begun handing out school-owned computers for at-home use by students. 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 at any time, including by remote access while the child is at home. Legislation under consideration by the General Assembly this year would avoid the privacy problems other states have faced 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 children out of such one-to-one technology programs entirely.
For the last two years, the ACLU of RI has documented the tremendous use of out-of-school suspensions as discipline against even the youngest students, and especially against students of color. Black and Hispanic students statewide are disproportionately likely to receive such punishment for minor infractions – particularly subjective offenses such as “disorderly conduct” and “insubordination.” The General Assembly will again consider ACLU-drafted legislation to reduce these disparities by requiring suspensions be served in school, unless the student presents a danger or serious disruption to the classroom. The bill, introduced by Rep. John Lombardi and Sen. Juan Pichardo, would also require school districts to evaluate their suspension data and determine a plan to reduce any racial or disability disparities.
Voting Rights Bills
On the day the Census worker comes through to determine residency for voting purposes, every person residing at the ACI is counted as if they live on Howard Ave. in Cranston, even though inmates at the prison who are entitled to vote during their incarceration must do so from their home address. As a result, the voting power of the people living near the prison is inflated, while the power of those living in the communities from which the incarcerated individuals hail is reduced. The General Assembly will again consider legislation, sponsored by Sen. Harold Metts and Rep. Anastasia Williams, to rectify this issue by requiring incarcerated individuals be counted for voting purposes as living at their most recent address.
Voter ID Repeal
The General Assembly will once again consider eliminating the state’s harmful photo ID voter requirement, which disproportionately disenfranchises elderly voters, low-income voters, disabled voters, students and transient voters, and minority voters. Compromise legislation that was floated in previous years to “freeze” the voter ID requirement in a non-photo form was never adopted. This year, the General Assembly will be asked to consider repealing the voter ID requirement entirely.
Comprehensive Election Reform
Rhode Island has grappled for a number of years with several issues regarding elections, including questions of when and how recounts can be conducted, how votes are counted, and even how the rules regarding elections are made. The ACLU of Rhode Island has for several years supported comprehensive election reform, which will be considered by the General Assembly this year. Among other things, the bill seeks to ensure every vote is counted in an open and transparent manner, increases the number of provisional ballots counted, and requires post-election audits to evaluate the accuracy of voting machines.
War on Drugs Bills
Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention
The state’s life-saving Good Samaritan Act is set to expire this year, and needs to be reauthorized. To help ensure that people do not hesitate calling 911 in the case of an emergency out of fear of jail time, the law prohibits law enforcement from arresting for certain drug crimes those who call for help in the case of a drug overdose. However, it does not prevent a person’s probation or parole from being violated. In addition to supporting reauthorization of the law, the ACLU and other advocates are therefore seeking an expansion of the law to protect individuals on probation or parole from punishment when they seek help in case of an overdose.
Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana
The “War on Drugs” has resulted in an astronomical number of individuals in jail instead of in treatment, and a disproportionate arrest rate for black individuals, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rate. The General Assembly will consider legislation confronting this drug prohibition, by regulating and taxing marijuana use by adults instead. Current prohibition policies have resulted in overcrowded prisons, not the reduction of drug use or exposure of children to drugs. This legislation would recognize the failures of existing drug policies, change the emphasis to treatment instead of incarceration, and help avoid the current situation that disproportionately falls upon black and Hispanic users.
Workplace Rights Bills
Existing federal prohibitions against pregnancy discrimination in the workplace have proven ineffective in preventing women from facing serious penalties in employment because of their pregnancy or breastfeeding status. Pregnant women are often asked to weigh their health and the safety of their pregnancy against their need to work, sometimes even losing their jobs. The General Assembly will consider legislation to prohibit such discrimination by ensuring that pregnant workers can seek the same sort of modest accommodations that workers facing illnesses or disabilities can receive.