Despite legislation enacted in 2017 aimed at promoting criminal justice reform, the Rhode Island General Assembly’s 2018 session took significant steps back from a “smart justice” approach by adding more than a dozen new felonies to the books and increasing sentences for several other crimes.
This expansion of the “Statehouse-to-prison pipeline” was the disappointing finding of an ACLU report issued today, updating an extensive analysis of RI lawmaking on criminal justice that the organization issued in January. That earlier report examined the problems of mass incarceration and overcriminalization that result from the state’s routine passage of laws that create new crimes and add sentences to existing crimes – in the absence of any analysis to support the expansions. Between 2000 and 2017, that earlier report found, the General Assembly created more than 170 new crimes.
The new report found a return to those ways, with legislative action in 2018 adding to “the ongoing upward trend of creating new crimes, adding harsher sentences, and sending more and more people to prison while doing nothing to stem that tide.” The updated report, “Justice De-Investment: The Regrettable Expansion of the Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline in 2018,” highlighted several especially problematic examples of this year’s lawmaking on crimes.
The report was particularly critical of what it called a “major step backwards” in criminal justice reform, with the enactment of two laws imposing mandatory minimum sentences on certain second offenders. As is widely noted in criminal justice research, mandatory minimums undermine judicial discretion and give prosecutors greater power to coerce plea deals out of defendants who may be innocent. It had been many years since the General Assembly last enacted bills imposing such sentences.
The report also documented a continuation of other deleterious trends that had been cited in the January study, such as arbitrariness in both the length of prison sentences and the financial penalties imposed, and the creation of crimes for conduct already addressed by existing criminal laws.
In reviewing the many criminal laws enacted this session, the report expressed dismay that the lack of a “smart justice” approach to crime came on the heels of the General Assembly’s passage in 2017 of legislation aimed at reforming RI’s criminal justice system. The report concludes with a plea to RI lawmakers to make good in 2019 on the promises of “justice reinvestment,” rather than continue with an ineffective, expensive, and counter-productive approach to criminal justice.