PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A bill being considered by Rhode Island lawmakers would eliminate the punishment of “life without parole” for capital offenses and retroactively apply to some two dozen inmates at the ACI who are not currently eligible for the possibility of an early release.
The bill — sponsored by veteran state Rep. Jay Edwards, D-Tiverton — would prevent a judge from sentencing a defendant to life without the possibility of parole for serious violent crimes, such as first-degree murder, murder of a kidnapped child, and carjacking resulting in murder.
“Life without parole is basically the second death penalty,” Edwards said.
The law would apply retroactively to inmates currently serving a life sentence without parole for any crimes committed since 1991. Edwards estimates about 24 people would be eligible to “have a conversation” with the R.I. Parole Board about a potential early release. He said all of the inmates are older and a few are octogenarians.
“There is no guarantee here,” Edwards said. “If the Parole Board doesn’t see fit, they stay [in prison].”
The bill’s cosponsors include the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Robert Craven, D-North Kingstown, along with Rep. Jason Knight, a Barrington Democrat and a former prosecutor turned defense attorney, and state Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield.
Carolyn Medeiros, the executive director of the Alliance for Safe Communities, called the measure a “ridiculous bill.”
“The victims are going to be further traumatized by this legislation,” Medeiros said. “We’re going to offer an opportunity for those convicted of these serious crimes to get out early, while the victims and their families are serving a lifetime sentence.”
Edwards filed a similar bill last year, but it failed to get out of the Judiciary Committee. It was opposed by Attorney General Peter Neronha, who told the committee in a letter last year that the legislation “would deprive this office, a jury, and the court from considering and imposing an appropriate sentence on the most violent offenders in the state who have committed heinous crimes.”
The state had only imposed life without parole 33 times between the late 1980s and 2022, according to Neronha.
“These cases typically involve particularly heinous crimes such as the murder of an entire family or the murder and sexual assault of young children or elderly victims,” Neronha wrote. “In such cases, not only does a sentence of life without parole constitute just punishment, but it also spares the victims’ families from being re-traumatized in the parole process, and it protects the public from future crimes by the defendant.”
A spokesperson for Neronha said the attorney general will oppose the legislation again this year.
Among those who would be eligible for parole, according to Medeiros, would be Jose Garcia, who set a Providence home ablaze in 1993, killing six people including four children, after a road rage incident.
Garcia, now 64, is serving his life sentence out of state.
But Edwards said the bill would not guarantee freedom to those who are serving time for terrible crimes, calling the Parole Board “pretty strict.”
“I just think we as a society, we need to be able to look at them,” Edwards said. “If they are able to be forgiven, we can do that. Some people you will just never be able to forgive.”
The law would open up the possibility of an early release after 25 years in prison for individuals who commit first- or second-degree murder, or for “medical or geriatric parole.”
Such an option is available to inmates now, but not if they have been sentenced to life without parole.
“Medical parole is made available for humanitarian reasons and to alleviate exorbitant medical expenses associated with inmates whose chronic and incurable illness render their incarceration non-punitive and non-rehabilitative,” the law states.
“It’s a new concept,” Edwards said. “We incarcerate people at a huge rate and there is only one state in the country that doesn’t have capital punishment or life without parole, and that is Alaska. Every other state has life without parole and/or capital punishment. As a civilized country we need to find another way.”
A hearing on the bill has not yet been scheduled.