PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A new report by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (RIACLU) found Rhode Island lawmakers created more than 170 new crimes in the past 18 years.
“These are sort of things that lead to what people are talking about a lot now: mass incarceration, the over-criminalization of our laws,” Steven Brown, Executive Director of the RIACLU, said in an interview with Eyewitness News.
Brown said the new laws create subsets of crime. Take for example the crime of assault, which carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison, or a $1,000 fine. Under new laws, assault of a delivery person or assault of a medical worker can carry much harsher maximum penalties: three years in prison, or up to a $3,000 fine.
“It can force criminal defendants to decide to plead to a crime rather than seek the right to a jury trial,” Brown said of defendants facing multiple charges linked to a single crime.
The report found, in addition to the new crimes, the legislature has increased penalties for dozens of crimes already on the books. The report points to a 2013 change in law that ups a third graffiti offense from a misdemeanor to a felony. The misdemeanor offense came with a maximum sentence of a $1,000 fine; the felony charge could carry up to two years in prison and a $2,000 fine.
Brown fears the laws are being inspired by what he calls the “issue du jour.”
“I think one of the reasons we’ve seen 170 new laws over this period of time is because there really isn’t much thought given to the broader picture,” Brown said. “It’s focusing on one crime at a time because a constituent may have contacted them about something that happened, or there are news stories about a particular type of crime. It’s easy for legislators to say, ‘We need to crack down on that.'”
The explosion of new laws is something Brown points to as a cause for overpopulation at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) in Cranston. According to a Department of Corrections (DOC) spokesman, the current inmate population is 2,649, down from a 40-year high in 2008 of 3,860. The DOC says from 1976 to 2008, the total prison population grew from by 540 percent, nearly six-fold, decreasing after 2008 in large part due to the passage of good time legislation and the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences in 2009.
Brown said it’s fairly rare to see the general assembly take action to repeal laws or reduce sentences. The report points to 34 cases of penalties being reduced or repealed since 2017.
“We think legislators ought to spend as much time looking at the idea of reducing sentences as they do at increasing them every year that they’re in session,” Brown said.
In light of the report, the RIACLU is recommending the general assembly create a commission to review and re-codify the state’s criminal laws. The RIACLU is also recommending the legislature stop passing duplicative criminal laws and reclassify felonies as misdemeanors in crimes that carry prison sentences of one year or less. Brown also said legislators should consider the possibility of making certain crimes civil offenses, rather than criminal offenses.
“I appreciate the ACLU’s viewpoint on this matter, as always,” Rep. Cale Keable, the House Judiciary Chair, said in a statement. “[We] will take it under consideration, along with the many other opinions presented to us in the course of our work in the House Judiciary Committee.”
Brown said this issue is not unique to Rhode Island, as many other states look to reform their criminal justice systems.
“What we’re hoping that this report will encourage legislators to think twice before they just routinely keep on passing all these laws and instead come up with a comprehensive approach to dealing with criminal justice reform,” Brown said.