Projo: R.I. Modifies Law on Probationers After Four-Year Campaign

July 8, 2010 - 11:09am

By John Hill, Journal Staff Writer

John Prince Jr., of Direct Action for Rights and Equality, was sent back to prison in 1991 because he was arrested on a robbery charge while on probation. The charge was dropped.

The Providence Journal / Bob Thayer

PROVIDENCE — People imprisoned for probation violations will be freed if they are cleared of the charge that led to their being sent back to prison under a new law Governor Carcieri allowed to take effect without his signature.

The governor’s decision this month capped a four-year effort by supporters to change what they said was an inequity in the state’s probation system, one that they said led to people who were found not guilty of crimes, in effect, serving time for them.

“Sweet,” said John Prince Jr., chairman of Direct Action for Rights and Equality, who was sent back to prison in 1991 because he was arrested on a robbery charge while on probation. That robbery charge was dismissed. Had the new law been in effect then, he would have been freed.

“I’m, like, I can’t describe how I feel,” he said.

Carcieri vetoed previous versions in 2007 and 2008. In response to his past criticisms, supporters said, this year’s bill was tightened to limit the number of cases in which probation violators were allowed to appeal.

A person convicted of a crime can be put on probation instead of serving prison time, or serve some time, get out of prison and be put on probation. In exchange, the probationer agrees to be of good behavior and “keep the peace.”

Under the old system, if that person on probation were charged with a new crime, the fact of the new charge alone was usually considered sufficient evidence of failure to keep the peace, and the person could be sent back to prison to serve some or all of the probation sentence. Even if the probationer was later found not guilty of the new charge, he or she still had to stay in prison.

Now, a person serving a probation-violation sentence can go before a judge and request release if he or she is found not guilty of the new charge, if the charge is dismissed, if a grand jury refuses to indict or if the attorney general decides not to press it.

Carcieri spokeswoman Amy P. Kempe said the governor decided to let this year’s bill take effect in light of the legislature having approved versions of it three times and the narrowing scope in this year’s bill.

If Prince couldn’t describe how he felt, Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch could. He said he was disappointed.

Lynch, who began his prosecution career handling violation hearings, said his office had worked with the governor and legislature on other changes, such as requiring the state to present more proof at a violation hearing.

He said his main objection was that the new law requires judges to release a probationer when the violation charge is dropped. Had the new law given the state a chance to argue against release in some cases, Lynch said his office might have been able to support the bill.

Rhode Island makes more use of probation and parole than most states. In a study of 2007 sentencing statistics, the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Center on the States found that 26,843 Rhode Islanders were on probation or parole, six times the number in the Adult Correctional Institutions.

The analysis said 1 in 31 Rhode Islanders was on either probation or parole, the fifth-highest ratio among the states. But it said Rhode Island was also less likely to resort to a prison sentence. The state’s imprisonment ratio was 1 in every 187 residents, which puts it 46th out of the 50 states.New probation release law

Jailed probation violators can now be released if the charge they were arrested on:

•Results in a not guilty verdict at trial

•Doesn’t lead to an indictment by a grand jury

•Is dismissed

•Is dropped for lack of evidence

•Isn’t prosecuted because the state doubts the defendant’s guilt

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