Criminal Justice Issues The ACLU of Rhode Island is Involved With - Court Cases, Legislation, News Releases


Protecting Civil Liberties in Rhode Island for Over 50 Years


Criminal Justice

“Procedural fairness and regularity are of the indispensable essence of liberty… Let it not be overlooked that due process of law is not for the sole benefit of an accused. It is the best insurance for the Government itself against those blunders which leave lasting stains on a system of justice.”

– U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson

The Rhode Island ACLU works to make the promise of fair treatment a reality for all people. All too often, the rights of those involved in the criminal justice system are compromised or ignored.  But the Bill of Rights was designed to ensure that basic procedural protections of fairness should apply to all individuals, including suspects, criminal defendants, and prisoners.

Criminal Justice in the News

  • Oct, 23, 2020: National ACLU Report Calling for Decriminalization of Sex Work Cites Rhode Island’s History
  • Aug, 03, 2020: Groups Press for Funding for Mental Health Staff for RI Students
  • Jun, 22, 2020: ACLU Calls for Dropping of Felony Charges Against Alleged Columbus Statue Vandals

View All »

Criminal Justice Court Cases

2020: Johnson v. Pawtucket
Category: Active Case    Civil Rights    Criminal Justice    Discrimination    Racial/Ethnic Discrimination    Police Practices    Students' Rights    Youth Rights    

About this Case:
This is a lawsuit against the City of Pawtucket over a School Resource Officer’s (SRO) unlawful handcuffing and arrest of a 13-year-old African-American middle school honors student.

Current Status:
Lawsuit filed in June 2020.

Cooperating Attorneys:
Shannah Kurland, Lynette Labinger

Supporting Documents
2020: Blanchette v. Narragansett
Category: Active Case    Criminal Justice    Free Speech    Police Practices    Students' Rights    Youth Rights    

About this Case:
This is a lawsuit in federal court seeking monetary damages on behalf of a former Narragansett High School student with special education needs who was thrown to the ground, choked and falsely arrested by a school resource officer (SRO). A video of the incident is available here.

Current Status:
Lawsuit filed in May 2020.

ACLU of RI Cooperating Attorney:
Amato A. DeLuca

Supporting Documents

More Criminal Justice Related Court Cases »

Related Legislation

Criminal Isolation of Elders (H 7322) Held for Further Study
Category: 2020    Criminal Justice    

Despite being vetoed by the Governor in 2018, H 7322, which would criminalize caretakers from  “isolating elders” but inappropriately includes such actions as throwing away their junk mail or screening their phone calls for telemarketers, was again introduced and opposed by the ACLU. We noted that the bill largely criminalized conduct currently prohibited under elder abuse law, and created numerous problems in its expansion of the current statute.

DUI Fees (H 7171, Article 6) Held for Further Study
Category: 2020    Criminal Justice    

Though the ACLU recognizes the importance of substance abuse education, a proposed article in the FY 2021 budget would fund such programs by implementing a hefty financial penalty on those convicted of either a DUI or refusal to submit to a breathalyzer to fund those programs. Considering the already steep financial penalties for such an offense, and the potential for additional penalties to further, negatively impact an individual’s housing, employment, and rehabilitation, we opposed this provision.

Wrongful Conviction (H 7086) Passed House
Category: 2020    Criminal Justice    

Introduced by Representative Patricia Serpa, H 7086 would allow for any person sentenced to prison for longer than a year who is found to have been wrongfully convicted to petition for compensation and damages. We supported this important legislation which would allow for individuals who have been unjustly thrust into the criminal justice system to ensure that they have the resources to reintegrate into the community and recalibrate their lives.

Bills Which Contribute to the Statehouse-To-Prison Pipeline
Category: 2020    Criminal Justice    

The ACLU has been consistent with our criticisms of pieces of legislation which lend themselves to the continuance of the statehouse-to-prison pipeline by either creating new crimes or increasing penalties for crimes which already exist. Each legislative session, dozens of bills are introduced, and a  number of them passed, which counteract the important work of criminal justice reform, as these new crimes and increased sentences are often arbitrary and almost always unnecessary. The 2020 session is no exception; already, several bills have been heard which would needlessly bolster mass incarceration rather than address the need for reform of the criminal justice system. We testified against the following bills on this basis.

H 7026 would create a new crime for making a knowingly false 911 call and inflict harsh penalties for conviction.

H 7027 would increase fines, sentence lengths, and driver’s license suspension periods for the crime of leaving the scene of the accident.

H 7033 would increase the maximum prison sentence and driver’s license suspension period for the crime of driving to endanger.

S 2083 would expand the crime of “exploiting the elderly” to subject more defendants to its harsh penalties.

Cruelty to Animals (H 7299) Held for Further Study
Category: 2020    Criminal Justice    

Only a few years ago, the General Assembly enacted legislation which created harsh penalties for any person convicted of unnecessary cruelty to an animal, including hoarding, despite opposition from the ACLU and mental health advocacy groups who expressed concerns about the criminalization of this activity, which can be a symptom of some mental illness. We testified in opposition to H 7299, which would unnecessarily expand the punishments which can be doled out under the animal cruelty laws, including for hoarding offenses.

Two similar bills, H 7545 and H 7546, which we also opposed, would further expand punishments for this offense, and would subject an individual convicted of such offenses to either a twnety-year ban or lifetime ban, respectively, on owning or excercising control over animals. 

“Porch Pirate” Penalties (H 7035) Held for Further Study
Category: 2020    Criminal Justice    

One of many bills which would generate a “new” crime would create specific penalties for individuals who commit larceny by stealing packages from either a house, office, or other dwelling. Despite preexisting penalties for crimes of theft, of which this offense would certainly fall under, H 7035 would additionally allow for confiscation of an individual’s car if they used the car to commit this "porch piracy" offense. We testified in opposition to this bill, noting that the confiscation of such a critical asset could severely impact both rehabilitation of the individual and the lives of their family members.

Bail Reform for Misdemeanors (S 2288, H 7143) Held for Further Study
Category: 2020    Criminal Justice    

While wealthier individuals who can post bail are permitted to go home while awaiting their hearings, those without immediate cash flow are forced to stay in jail until their case is heard, creating a wealth-based incarceration system. Even when an individual is not convicted, a stay in jail for as short as a day can have devastating effects on their job, housing, and the life of their family. We supported legislation, H 7143 and S 2288, introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams and Senator Ana Quezada, which confronts this aspect of the criminal justice system by allowing the pretrial release of individuals without the requirement of monetary bail for most misdemeanor charges.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing (S 2004B, H 7102) Passed
Category: 2020    Criminal Justice    

The ACLU has consistently opposed the imposition of mandatory minimum sentencing terms on the grounds that they are ineffective, costly, eliminate individualized consideration of the offender and the circumstances of the offense, and place too much power in the hands of prosecutors instead of neutral judges. A bill concerning “ghost guns”, or guns which are untraceable or do not appear on metal detectors, heard in both the House and the Senate in the second week of the session, contains such a provision which would have imposed such mandatory minimum sentences for new criminal offenses relating to weapons. We testified in opposition, arguing that the state should refrain from passing legislation that expands the use of mandatory minimum sentencing procedures.