Legislative Update December 2009

January 6, 2010 - 4:34pm

December 1, 2009

Dear Friends and Supporters,

The 2008-2009 General Assembly session has resulted in several important changes to Rhode Island criminal law. The General Assembly met for a special session at the end of October, passing a large number of bills. The session will formally end on January 6, when legislators reconvene to begin the 2009-2010 session. Here is a summary of the changes to criminal law:

Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences Eliminated:
The biggest victory this year for advocates of criminal justice reform in Rhode Island was the elimination of mandatory minimums in drug sentencing cases. Previously, possession of certain amounts of drugs all carried mandatory minimum ten or two year sentences. For example, 10 years mandatory minimum sentences were required for possession of an ounce or more of heroine, crack or cocaine, or one kilogram or more of marijuana. Under the new law, these mandatory minimum sentences are no longer required, although previous sentences are still applicable. By allowing judges to give small time drug offenders shorter sentences, the new law will save Rhode Island much-needed funds, and will help limit the impact of incarceration on individuals, families, and communities.

Congratulations and special thanks to all of the organizations involved: Direct Action for Rights and Equality, the RI ACLU, the RI Public Defender’s Office, RICARES, the Drug and Alcohol Treatment Association of RI, RI Family Life Center, Roger Williams Law School, the Drug Policy Alliance and Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Indoor Prostitution Made Illegal:
Previously, managing or profiting from indoor commercial sex had been illegal. Under the new law, buying and selling commercial sex indoors is now also illegal. Anyone paying for or receiving money for a commercial sexual service is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by at least a $250 fine, up to 6 months in prison, or both.

The Family Life Center is very concerned that this new law will unnecessarily incarcerate individuals who engage in prostitution under dire circumstances such as extreme poverty, substance abuse, and homelessness. We will continue to encourage legislators to improve access to much-needed services rather than resorting to incarceration.

Prostitution Records Expungeable:
As part of the above law, prostitution convictions are now expungeable after one year. While all other convictions are only expungeable for first-time offenders (people with only one other charge on their record), prostitution offenders can now apply for expungement regardless of how many other charges are on the person’s record. This applies to charges for prostitution both indoors and outdoors, including “loitering for prostitution.” It is not entirely clear whether this applies to convictions prior to November 2009. Anyone interested in applying for expungement of prostitution charges should contact the Family Life Center’s pro bono legal program, at 781-5808 ext. 108.

This change represents a victory for individuals who wish to leave prostitution, but are rejected from employment or housing because of their criminal record. It will allow them the opportunity to work for a better life for themselves and their families.

Probation Reform Legislation Passed and Vetoed:
When a person on probation is charged with a new crime, they can end up serving a long prison sentence for that crime even if they have been exonerated. Legislation to reform Rhode Island’s unfair probation violation process passed in the General Assembly this year, but was vetoed. The bill would dismiss sentences for people that have been cleared of the new criminal charges. In other words, if you are found innocent of the charge that led to your probation violation, or the charge was dismissed, you would no longer remain in prison for the probation violation.

The General Assembly will have the option to override the veto on January 6, 2010. But, we need your help to pressure legislators to include this legislation in their override session.


Call House Majority Leader Gordon Fox and encourage him to push for an override of the Governor’s veto of H5040SubA/ S86SubB, the Probation Innocence Bill.

CALL and EMAIL Representative Gordon Fox

(401) 222-2447

Learn more and watch the video here.

As always, we rely on your support to conduct high quality research and public education around criminal justice reform.

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