Rhode Island governor aims to reform criminal justice system, lower costs

Providence — Gov. Gina Raimondo established a working group Tuesday to reform the state's criminal justice system and reduce costs arising from the high rate of offenders returning to jail.

Rhode Island had the nation's third highest percentage of residents on probation in 2013 — with 2,737 probationers per 100,000 adult residents. In Providence the rate of adults on probation was nearly double, or one in 21 adults, in fiscal 2014.

But only about 8 percent of the state's public safety funding goes to probation and parole services. In fiscal 2014, that equated to $15 million out of $408.5 million. Nearly half of the people admitted to Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institutions in 2014 were probation violators.

"It's time that we come together as a community to examine our criminal justice system and move us toward a more data-driven, outcome-oriented system, where I believe in the end, you can save money, bring about justice and help folks get reintegrated into the community more effectively and efficiently," the Democratic governor said.

The Justice Reinvestment Working Group is looking at how to ensure resources are focused on the most serious crimes, reduce recidivism and improve mental health and substance abuse treatment. The members will analyze criminal justice data for racial disparities.

"There are too many people on probation in Rhode Island," said retired Superior Court Associate Justice Judith Colenback Savage, the group's co-chair. "There are too many people in prison, too many for short stays for nonviolent offenses, or before they've even been convicted of any crime— too many of them black and brown, too many of them severely mentally ill and addicted, at too high a cost in a system that's making us less safe, not more. It's time to tackle the problem."

They met for the first time after the order was signed.

They will analyze data and propose new policies, with help from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, U.S. Department of Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Members of the General Assembly, judiciary and law enforcement officials are participating.

The Justice Center worked with Rhode Island when the prison population was projected to grow in 2007.

The state passed a law in 2008 to enable some prisoners to get out early if they commit to rehabilitation programs, such as job training and substance abuse treatment. Lawmakers later changed the law to bar people convicted of violent crimes from earning good-time credits.

The prison population decreased through 2014, but it's now expected to grow from 2,477 people to 2,766 people by fiscal 2024.

 

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