On Thursday the Rhode Island Senate unanimously passed seven bills that seek a major overhaul of Rhode Island’s probation and parole system. The bills, packaged together and dubbed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, address the excessive use of probation in the criminal justice system, particularly among black men and the mentally ill.
The package calls for treatment instead of jail time for mentally-ill offenders and gives judges greater leeway regarding sentencing. The bills aim to reduce recidivism in the Ocean State.
The group of bills met uneven support in last year's session. The package passed the Senate, lauded by people like Sen. Teresa Paiva Weed, but never made it to a vote in the House.
The JRI package was reintroduced this session by Sen. Michael McCaffrey. Some supporters are hopeful the package will get through the House this time around.
The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity falls in that category. The advocacy group has embraced the bills from their inception. CEO of the group, Mike Stenhouse said that passing these bills could improve the welfare of Rhode Island families stuck in the system.
“The goal is to reform the probation-incarceration system in Rhode Island,” Stenhouse said, “so that offenders aren’t basically doomed for the rest of their lives when it comes to continuing education, or getting a job and supporting their families.”
Stenhouse added that the way the system is structured now isn’t justice.
“It's one thing to be tough on crime, but it's another thing to be unfair and to harm families,” said Stenhouse.
Stenhouse’s group works with The American Conservative Union Foundation to create a report they call the Family Prosperity Index. The index looks at 57 variables to measure family well-being across the country using taxes, those in the criminal justice system, and drug use as metrics.
Rhode Island ranked 48th in the most recent report, and Stenhouse said that he thinks the JRI package is a good first step to changing that status.
Stenhouse said he is not surprised the package cleared the Senate and he hopes the House will do the same.
“When civil leaders and political advocates from the left and the right so strongly agree on an issue that affects families and individuals,” Stenhouse said, “this is a win-win situation for everyone.”