Projo Columnist Praises Passage of Probation Reform Bill

July 8, 2010 - 11:03am

Bob Kerr: An embarrassing stain is removed from the state

Projo: June 23, 2010

In all the fireworks exploding from the closing scrum of the Rhode Island General Assembly, there was one small moment of real sanity and justice to feel good about.

An embarrassment was removed and a practice that was darn near medieval was put to an end.

Thanks to legislation introduced by Sen. Rhoda Perry and Rep. David Segal, the state can no longer keep people in prison if the reason for putting them there is proven false.

It seems simple enough. Innocence means freedom. It should always be that way, shouldn’t it? A person is sent to the slammer, the reason for sending him or her is proven false, so he or she gets out.

But for too many years, it didn’t work that way. For too many years, and with the tacit approval of people who are supposed to uphold the idea of innocent until proven guilty, people on probation could be sent back to prison and left there even if their alleged probation violation was proven false.

Perry called the old law “perverse.” It was that and so much more — unjust, wasteful, embarrassing. At a time when prisons are becoming nothing more than criminal warehouses, the archaic law that allowed the innocent to be kept in a cell only added to an already overburdened system.

But perhaps the worst part of that hideous old law was the way it left people on probation vulnerable to those who knew the system and had a grudge to settle. One man who had been stung more than once by the old law said it would take just one phone call to send a person on probation back to prison. It might not have been that easy, but it was much too easy.

Back in the legal backwater created by the old law, a person on probation charged with another crime was considered guilty of probation violation and sent back to prison to serve out the suspended sentence even if there was no conviction on the second charge. The situation has sometimes led people to plead guilty to lesser offenses, even if they’re not guilty, because the plea will get them out. A criminal record grows without a crime being committed.

Supporters have spent a lot of time pointing out the injustices, citing cases in which people were jailed more than once as probation violators even though the charges were never proved.

In the bad old days, which ended Saturday, probation policy in Rhode Island promoted deception, desperation and a very twisted brand of legal revenge.

This is not the first year senators and representatives have attempted to pull Rhode Island out of some very low company when it comes to probation. Bills to reform the system have twice been vetoed by Governor Carcieri. Perry and Segal’s bill became law Saturday without the governor’s signature.

It was a proud moment for some, not for others.

It’s always good to get rid of dusty old stuff that just gets in the way. It’s always good to clean out the dirty little corners, remove those embarrassing stains that have been ignored too long.

Some people in Rhode Island can rest a little easier and have a better chance of putting their lives back together because the General Assembly did the right thing.

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