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Neronha: Felony criminal case backlog larger than first thought

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CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — The number of criminal felony cases that went unprosecuted by the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office is larger than first thought, according to the state’s new top prosecutor.

As previously reported, outgoing Attorney General Peter Kilmartin discovered as he was wrapping up his tenure last year that there were 1,300 felony cases that had never been prosecuted. The vast majority of those — 900 cases — will never be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has expired.

At a briefing Tuesday to update the public on his assessment of the situation, new Attorney General Peter Neronha announced his team discovered an additional 1,697 cases that they consider “backlogged” and are now being prosecuted by his office.

Neronha said the first round of cases was left hanging because prosecutors didn’t have enough information from police departments to charge the case in Superior Court. He said it was a failure on both sides, in that no one from the attorney general’s office flagged the missing information to departments, and no one from the police sought updates on where things stood.

With the 1,697 felony cases, however, Neronha said prosecutors did have all the evidence they needed — called an information package — to move them forward to Superior Court, yet they just languished on the shelf.

None of those cases have reached the statute of limitations, according to Neronha, but more than 600 of the 1,697 are at least six months old.

That is concerning, he said, because bail conditions for defendants accused of a crime can expire after six months and the charges can be dismissed.

“That issue is solely ours,” Neronha said. “Whether it happened last year, next year or this year, that is an attorney general’s office issue. Police have done everything they need to do to get everything we need and we’re just not moving it fast enough into the system.”

Neronha said it was his top priority to tackle the backlog and he has beefed up the agency’s Intake Unit to rectify the problem.

When he took office, the unit had seven members handling hundreds of cases a month. Neronha said he has moved people around within his office and increased staffing there to the equivalent of 13.5 employees. He said he has also overhauled oversight of the unit.

“It’s pretty obvious we needed to change things in that Intake Unit,” Neronha said. “There was simply no way with the current staff we had in that office that we could not only get that 1,697-case queue taken care of, but keep up with the cases that were coming in all the time.”

Neronha said staff in the unit has been working hard and within the last three months has gotten the backlog down to roughly 850 cases.

“Every case starts here, so if we don’t have our best people in that unit, ultimately the system will collapse on itself,” he said. “My goal at the end of this is to never have a case go beyond six months, ever.”

Sid Wordell, head of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, said there was “shock” in the law enforcement community when Kilmartin’s office announced the 1,300 cases had not been prosecuted, and most probably never would be.

“I know there was frustration and there was embarrassment,” Wordell said. “What the public had for an expectation of law enforcement and the partnership we have with the attorney general’s office, something failed.”

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré — whose department launched the vast majority of unprosecuted cases — said there were flaws in the entire system, both within police departments and at the attorney general’s office.

“Any case that falls through the cracks, there is a victim out there and they deserve justice,” Paré said. “There is no blame here. I think collectively we are part of a system that the public expects us to deliver justice when there is a crime that was committed.”

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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