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

  • Dec, 13, 2018: Groups Condemn Department of Health Regulatory Action Affecting Thousands with Criminal Records
  • Nov, 03, 2018: ACLU Issues Statement on Arrest of Richard Gardner
  • Oct, 20, 2018: Groups Respond to Efforts to Remove Ex-Offender from Washington Park

View All »

Criminal Justice Court Cases

2017: RIHAP v. Raimondo
Category: Active Case    Civil Rights    Criminal Justice    Discrimination    Rights of the Disabled    Rights of the Poor    Rights of Ex-Offenders    


About This Case:
This is a case filed in U.S. Distric Court against the State of Rhode Island on behalf of a group of homeless registered sex offenders (RSOs) who, because of a state law, will no longer be allowed to stay at the Harrington Hall homeless shelter in Cranston and will instead be forced back into the streets.

Current Status:
Lawsuit settled in December 2018.

ACLU Cooperating Attorneys:
Lynnette Labinger, John E. MacDonald


Supporting Documents
2015: Ferreira v. Wall
Category: Civil Rights    Criminal Justice    Fair Administration of Justice    

This is a federal lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of a 106-year-old statute that declares inmates serving life sentences at the ACI to be “civilly dead.” The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by ACLU volunteer attorney Sonja Deyoe, is on behalf of two ACI inmates and the women who have been barred from marrying them because of the “civil death” law. Rhode Island apparently remains one of only three states that still has on the books a law like this, whose origins date back to ancient English common law.

Supporting Documents

More Criminal Justice Related Court Cases »

Related Legislation

Moral Turpitude (H 7764, S 2337) DIED
Category: 2018    Criminal Justice    

 "Moral turpitude" is a legally ambiguous term that has caused considerable confusion in Rhode Island. Currently, this antiquated term can be found in several professional licensing statutes as a basis on which to deny or revoke a person's professional license. However, exactly what this means is up for debate. The first definition of the phrase in the current edition of Black’s Law Dictionary is “conduct that is contrary to justice, honesty or morality.” Not terribly helpful, and certainly not very limiting.

While it has been many years since the General Assembly has enacted a license using this term, its existence highlights the need for better uniformity amoung State licensing statutes. No person should have to fear being denied entry into their profession or losing a license over this hopelessly vague term. The ACLU of Rhode Island testified in support of this legislation (S 2337, H 7764) to eliminate its use from professional licensing statutes. Unfortunately, the bill failed to move out of either the House Judiciary or Senate Commerce committees.

Criminal Offenses
Category: 2018    Criminal Justice    

Earlier this year, the ACLU of Rhode Island released a report, “Rhode Island’s Statehouse to Prison Pipeline,” taking an in-depth look at the General Assembly's  overzealous approach to criminal law making. Between 2000 and 2017, the General Assembly created more than 170 new crimes, and increased prison sentences for dozens of existing offenses. Many of these “new” crimes make criminal offenses out of conduct that was already prohibited by existing laws, but establishing harsher penalties and more serious consequences, without any evidence that they will have any effect on criminal conduct.

2017 was no different, with multiple bills introduced in this same spirit. For example, H 7445 expanded upon a bill passed last year that carved out a new offense for assaults committed against delivery drivers, to now include taxi drivers. Assault is, of course, already illegal regardless of the profession of the victim. Our full testimony on this bill can be found here. Other bills introduced this year sought to increase penalties on existing crimes.  H 7390, for example, could have increased fivefold the amount of time an offender spends in prison for damaging phone lines, from 2 to 10 years. As of now, there is nothing suggesting that such sentencing increases are anything other than arbitrary. Both proposals failed to move out of committee, but a number of others (such as H 7223A and S 2135A) did pass, continuing this disturbing trend.

Justice Reinvestment (H 7534, S 2603A, S 2604 as amended) Passed Senate; Died in House
Category: 2018    Criminal Justice    

In 2017, the General Assembly passed a number of bills aimed at improving the criminal justice system. This year, Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (H 7534) and Sen. Michael McCaffrey (S 2603A, S 2604 as amended) introduced legislation promoting two proposals passed by the Senate last year but stripped at the last minute from the package approved by the House. These proposals would reclassify certain felonies into misdemeanors, reducing the collateral consequences for individuals convicted of those crimes. They would also require the preparation of prison impact statements, setting forth the estimated fiscal effect for any bill creating new crimes or increasing prison sentences. The Senate approved amended versions of both proposals in May; unfortunately, once again, the House failed to act.

Juvenile Sentencing (S 2272, H 7596) DIED
Category: 2018    Criminal Justice    

Senator Harold M. Metts and Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell sponsored legislation this year to address the issuance of lengthy prison sentences against juveniles who are charged as adults (S 2272, H 7596). As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences.” Yet many who commit their crimes as children are viewed as incapable of rehabilitation, and incarcerated long into adulthood. Under the proposed legislation, juveniles sentenced as adults would automatically come before the parole board after fifteen years, regardless of the length of their sentence. Such a proposal, the ACLU testified, would give these young adults the chance to prove their fitness to return to society. In 2017, a version of this bill passed the Senate but died in the House. This year, neither the House nor Senate Judiciary committee acted on the bill.