Should RIers serving long prison terms get a chance at release? Bill would give sentences a 'second look'

PROVIDENCE – The call went out last month for state lawmakers to empower judges to reconsider sentences if an inmate makes true strides toward rehabilitation while behind bars.

Rep. Julie A. Casimiro answered the call last week as the lead sponsor of the Second Look Sentencing Act, a proposal that if passed would allow people to petition the court to have their sentences reviewed after serving 10 years.

“We trust judges to do our sentencing for people. Let’s give them the tools and leeway to adjust those sentences if they deem it appropriate,” said Casimiro, D-North Kingstown, Exeter. “Believe me, it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card by any stretch of the imagination.”

Casimiro estimated that about 1,000 people held at the Adult Correctional Institutions would be eligible to apply for relief. Under the proposal, 25% of any savings realized from people being freed would be dedicated to programs and services designed to counter recidivism, with another 10% routed to the state attorney general's and public defender's offices to help staff the initiative.

“We all know young men’s brains are not fully developed at 17 years old. I really think it’s time to do right by our juvenile offenders,” Casimiro said, adding that she’d be willing to consider adjusting the 10-year time frame.

The medium-security unit at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston.
The medium-security unit at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston.

More:Do long sentences for young offenders merit 'second look'? Judge asks lawmakers for leeway

What would the bill do?

As proposed, a person could petition Superior Court for a sentence reduction after serving 10 years. The court would either refer the request to the sentencing judge or a judge would be assigned.

A hearing would be held upon request by the inmate or the state in which arguments and evidence may be presented. The court would render a decision that addresses factors such as age at the time of the crime; the person’s role and whether he or she was themselves a victim of abuse; exculpatory evidence; rehabilitation efforts; and victim and family impact statements.

In cases involving a person over 50 years old, there would be a presumption that the individual is eligible for release unless the state proves otherwise.

A person who cannot afford a lawyer would be assigned to the public defender’s office or receive court-appointed representation.

The attorney general’s office would be responsible for notifying the victims. The onus would be on the state Department of Corrections to alert inmates to the law.

A Corrections spokesman said the department would study the bill’s provisions.

The case that brought 'second looks' to attention

The impetus for the legislation was an opinion issued last month by Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Procaccini in which the judge observed that he was hamstrung from considering whether to grant relief to Gahlil Oliveira.

“If Rhode Island had legislation permitting a 'second look' or review of petitioner’s sentence  … this Court would have no hesitation in reconsidering petitioner’s sentence imposed over twenty-five years ago,” Procaccini wrote in  “regrettably” denying Oliveira’s motion to reduce his sentence of life in prison, plus a consecutive 40 years. Unfortunately, the judge said, he had no legal avenue to grant relief. Court rules specify that judges may reduce any sentence within 120 days after the sentence is imposed.

Oliveira, then 23, was one of five men charged in the shooting death of 26-year-old John Carpenter in broad daylight Dec. 18, 1995, near the Cranston Street Armory. The murder of Carpenter, the son of former state Rep. Marsha E. Carpenter, was believed to be in retaliation for a friend’s killing three days earlier.

A spokesman for the attorney general's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Longer sentences not actually a deterrent, bill's supporters say

The Second Look bill is modeled on sample legislation by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“What we’re seeing is people who are serving these overly long sentences when the data shows it’s not actually a deterrent,” said Monica Reid, senior director of advocacy at the NACDL.

The result is that states, and as such taxpayers, are bearing the costs of housing and caring for aging prisoners after decades of policies that led to mass incarceration, she said.

It is critical, she said, that policy makers engage in the “uncomfortable” conversation of considering relief for not just young or low-level offenders, but those who were adults who have committed violent offenses as well.

“It’s allowing people to say `I’ve changed.’ It allows for someone to be reconsidered. It’s not a guarantee,” Reid said.

The legislation emphasizes evidence nationally that long-term incarceration has disproportionately impacted poor communities and communities of color at a grave social, cultural, and economic cost that ranges from $68,000 to $110,000 to house prisoners a year.

It cites research, too, showing that long prison sentences can increase, rather than reduce, the chance that a person reoffends.

Plus, the legislation says, the prospect that a sentence may one day be reduced encourages incarcerated individuals to engage in good behavior and take advantage of rehabilitative programming.

“Sentences are not just served by the incarcerated individual; they are served by their families,” it reads. Studies indicate that the children of incarcerated parents are six to seven times more likely to serve time themselves.

Other states have similar laws

A handful of states have enacted measures to allow sentences to be reconsidered, but largely at the prosecutor’s request – a prospect NACDL's Reid finds problematic. Many more states are now considering bills that would allow for sentencing reconsideration under varying mechanisms.

Rhode Island's Second Look legislation is in keeping with national trends toward extending possible relief to people serving lengthy sentences. The Model Penal Code, standardized laws used to assist legislatures, recommends that judges have the ability to review sentences after 15 years of imprisonment for adult crimes, and after 10 years for youth crimes. The American Bar Association also calls for ‘second look’ resentencing hearings after people have been held for 10 years.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Second look at long prison sentences possible with RI bill