'Justice Reinvestment' bills pass to Gov's desk facing criticism

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A package of 13 bills dubbed the "criminal justice reinvestment package" were approved in the House and Senate during Tuesday's one-day special session of the Rhode Island General Assembly.

Proponents say the package will produce cost savings, which can be reinvested to improve the state's criminal justice system by reducing recidivism and increasing the number of diversion programs to keep more people out of prison in the first place.

The bills came to be as a result of Governor Gina Raimondo's Justice Reinvestment Working Group, assembled in July of 2015 through an executive order to find ways to increase public safety while reducing costs.

"The governor established the Justice Reinvestment Working Group because the criminal justice system still does not work for too many Rhode Islanders," said Catherine Rolfe, deputy press secretary for the governor. "After an exhaustive process and years of hard work building a broad coalition of support including law enforcement, criminal justice advocates and policymakers, the governor is proud that the legislative package resulting from that Group's recommendations is coming to her desk."

However the package has already drawn harsh criticism, most notably from Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, who stated in a press release Monday evening that the package bills were nothing more than "feel good legislation" that was the result of a "sham commission controlled by the governor with a pre-destined outcome."

Specifically, Kilmartin has grievances with four provisions in just three of the bills that make up the package, while he strongly supported about 95 percent of the rest of the package, according to sources in the Attorney General's office.

Once signed by Raimondo, House Bill 5115 and its Senate accompaniment S 0011, "An Act Relating to Criminal Offenses," would reduce the maximum sentence for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon from 20 years to six years in cases where the assault did not cause "serious bodily injury" or any injury at all. This provision would even apply to assaults using firearms, which in a previous version of the bill were excluded from the changes.

"The egregiousness of the act does not change due to their [the victim's] injury, and therefore the criminal penalties should reflect that," said Kilmartin in the press release in opposition to this provision.

The affirmative vote prompted Kilmartin to urge the governor to veto the provision within the bill last Thursday. He argued that, during the same one-day session, legislators voted to change the maximum penalty for assaulting a delivery person to 20 years, with a minimum of five years.

"I cannot understand this rationale," Kilmartin wrote. "How does one explain this to a victim or their family? That their grandfather, pregnant wife, teenage son, family member or friend who has been assaulted with a dangerous weapon does not deserve the same justice as the delivery person who has also been a victim of assault with a dangerous weapon.  Justice must serve all victims. This is not just."

The Attorney General explained that he also took issue with changes made by House Bills 5117 and 5128 (and their Senate versions S 0008 and S 0009) to established laws regarding the granting or denying of parole and what constitutes a violation of probation.

In regards to granting parole, H5128 nixes language that says the parole board can take into account "the nature and circumstances of the offense or offenses for which the applicant was sentenced." Although the bill also creates new language that permits the parole board to take into consideration "criminal history, attitudes and values of the applicant that bear on the likelihood to re-offend," Kilmartin still takes issue with the former revision.

"All crimes and defendants are different and the Parole Board should have this discretion when making parole determinations," he said in the release. "This is especially true when there are victims involved and the defendant's actions were particularly reprehensible."

Kilmartin criticized H5117 for cutting language that requires those put on probation to "keep the peace and be of good behavior," when determining if terms probation has been violated.

"That standard has been supported by decades of Rhode Island jurisprudence," Kilmartin said. "Its exclusion in the new probation standard calls into question what is a probation violation."

Kilmartin also said that H5117 struck and subsequently omitted key language that would result in allowing criminals to complete their probation sentence before completing restitution payments to victims. Kilmartin said that this lapse would make collecting restitution "unenforceable" and that "the only persons harmed in that circumstance are crime victims."

Lastly, Kilmartin alleges that the bills provide "no coordinated plan to achieve any cost savings, and there is no plan to reinvest any of the alleged savings," calling the bill package a "classic political shell game that allows the governor and legislative leaders to claim the compassionate flag."

This criticism is in regards to H5128, which outlines a "justice reinvestment" section that instructs the Corrections Department to, "attempt to monitor the implementation of justice reinvestment policies for the period from 2017 to 2022," without getting into specifics regarding the source of funding or outlining of framework to oversee accountability of these goals.

The section includes provisions such as assessing the "feasibility of implementing additional law enforcement training in responding to people with behavioral health and substance abuse needs," and examining "barriers to reentry and the availability and effectiveness of programs designed to increase employability and employment of people in the criminal justice system."

Kilmartin said in the release that he had worked successfully with the House Judiciary Committee to introduce amendments into the House versions of the bills that addressed his concerns. Those bills didn't get a chance to be heard on the floor, though, after House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello abruptly ended the session over a falling out with his Senate president counterpart, Dominick Ruggerio, over a provision in his car tax relief plan.

When the Judiciary Committee reposted the bills last Friday, they were posted without any of those amendments present. Amy Kempe, public information officer for Attorney General's Office, said that they still had been given no reason for why the amendments were scrapped as of press time on Wednesday.

"The House and the Senate should be ashamed to trade favors and promises with legislation that has a very real impact on the daily lives of victims," Kilmartin said in the release. "When a constituent is assaulted with a deadly weapon, the governor, Speaker and Senate President can explain the consequences of an inadequate justice system they created."

Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (District 29 - Warwick) responded quickly to Kilmartin's release in a statement also released Monday evening, saying that, "This type of fear mongering is unfortunate from our Attorney General. Rhode Island's criminal justice system is broken...These bills make our communities safer by reducing crime and recidivism. Furthermore, taxpayers will see a substantial savings. As a top Senate priority for the past two years, these bills have been thoroughly and very publicly vetted."

Other parts of the bills, including an expansion of diversion programs to keep people out of prison, were praised by the Attorney General's Office.

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