R.I. mandatory drug sentencing law repealed (sort of)
PROVIDENCE — For the second year in a row, state lawmakers have approved a bill to wipe out the state’s mandatory minimum sentences for serious drug crimes, such as the sale of heroin, cocaine or significant amounts of marijuana.
And for the second year in a row, Republican Governor Carcieri is likely to veto it. [BOOO! (darth vadar theme music plays) end editorial comment-h.a.]
Since this “is essentially the same bill that went to the governor last year, and he vetoed it, it is reasonable to believe it will receive the same treatment this year,” said Carcieri spokeswoman Barbara Trainor in response to inquiries after the measure cleared its final legislative hurdle yesterday.
Passed by the House on a 52-to-13 vote after clearing the Senate earlier this session, the bill is one in a constellation of bills to reduce sentences, let prisoners out early and “quash and destroy” criminal records that are being pushed with notable success this year by criminal defense lawyers, prisoner-rights advocates and the minority community.
While there was little debate yesterday, there was this unusual exchange between House Minority Whip Nicholas Gorham, R-Coventry, and a heckler at the back of the House chamber.
After reading whole sections of Carcieri’s veto message from last year, Gorham asked House Judiciary Committee Chairman Donald Lally who was for it and who was against it. In response, Lally said he believed “the public defender was in favor of it … and numerous other people.”
“The public defender was in favor of it? Wow, what a surprise,” said Gorham laughing.
From the back of the cavernous House chamber came a loud — “Ha Ha Ha” — from Rep. John Patrick Shanley, D-South Kingstown, which led Gorham to say: “Laugh all you want. You’re the one who’s going to vote for it so, you know, open the jail house doors a little wider.” (Explaining his actions later, Shanley said he believed Gorham’s own “ha-ha-ha” deserved a “ho-ho-ho,” but moreover, as a former probation officer, he believes judges should be able to make case-by-case sentencing decisions.)
The law at issue was adopted at the height of the Reagan-era war on drugs when Rhode Island, like other states, believed it was grappling with a serious social problem. Prosecutors said “heroin is out of control in Providence.” State police labeled Rhode Island “a mecca for drug salesmen.” Lawmakers responded with tougher sentences for certain drug crimes: a minimum of 10 years imprisonment for those convicted of selling or planning to sell an ounce or more of heroin or cocaine. Possessing larger quantities carried a mandatory minimum of 20 years. Bail wasn’t an option.
The law-enforcement community hailed the legislation as the muscle that would take down drug kingpins and dismantle Rhode Island’s drug trade from the top down. But as the years wore on, Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, among others, decided the state had “gone overboard out of fear.” Instead of drug lords, he concluded, it was the addicts and low-level street dealers who found themselves facing long prison stays.
A group called the Marijuana Policy Project lobbied Rhode Island lawmakers to repeal the minimum-sentence laws with this argument: “Can you imagine spending the rest of your life in prison for possessing marijuana — a substance that has never been shown to cause an overdose death? Some Rhode Islanders can. Possessing more than five kilograms of a substance containing any amount of marijuana can result in life in state prison.”
The bill headed for the governor’s desk was introduced in the Senate by Metts. A matching bill introduced by Rep. Joseph Almeida, D-Providence, is still winding its way through the General Assembly.
Both would repeal the mandatory sentences which can run from a minimum of 10 years to life in prison in the most serious cases, restore “judicial discretion,” and limit prison stays to 30 years.
In his veto message last July, Carcieri said: “Whether intended or not, the practical import of this legislation is that the General Assembly is directing the judiciary to ease up on sentences for serious drug offenses.” He said judges already have the discretion to deviate from the mandatory minimum if “substantial and compelling circumstances exist which justify imposition of an alternative sentence.”