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3/19/2018 Bill would bans death-in-prison sentences for children
STATE HOUSESen. Harold M. Metts and Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell have introduced legislation to enable those serving lengthy sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles to be eligible for parole after serving 15 years, effectively eliminating life without parole for juvenile offenders and ensuring the state complies with recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

Current parole law makes no distinction between adults and those under 18 convicted in adult court. Typically, those serving life sentences are eligible for parole after 20 to 25 years.

The legislation (2018-S 2272, 2018-H 7596) is aimed at creating more nuanced parole laws that better reflect the differences between juvenile and adult offenders, and acknowledging recent Supreme Court decisions.

“Justice is not one-size-fits all. The Supreme Court has recognized that those who commit crimes as juveniles are not the same as adult offenders. Their minds are still developing, and yes, they can be rehabilitated,” said Senator Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence). “This legislation isn’t going to open the prison doors and set anyone free. It’s going to give our duly appointed and highly qualified Parole Board a chance to look at individual cases and determine whether someone who committed a serious crime as a child should still be in jail or whether he or she has truly rehabilitated and is deserving of a chance to be a part of society for the first time in their adult life.”

Said Representative Ranglin-Vassell (D-Dist. 5, Providence), “Who among us is not very different than they were as a teenager? Teenagers who commit crimes, even very serious crimes, are still children, who have a long way to go and much to learn before they are fully mature.  Even in prison, they grow up, and if they have rehabilitated, they should have the opportunity to show the Parole Board that they are not the same troubled young person they were when they committed their crimes. To give them life without any opportunity for parole is to throw away their entire lives before they have even grown up, and it rejects the notion of rehabilitation that is supposed to be at the heart of corrections, particularly for youth.”

Senator Metts is a retired assistant principal and a deacon in the Congdon Street Baptist Church who regularly provides ministry in prison. Representative Ranglin-Vassell is a special education English teacher at E-Cubed Academy in Providence, has been a teacher in Providence for 18 years, and also taught in Kingston, Jamaica. They say they sponsored the bill both because juveniles are different from adults, and because the justice system is not merely about punishment and retribution, but also for rehabilitation, restoration and reconciliation. The possibility of parole provides hope to the incarcerated, as well as incentive to improve.

The change would affect only nine prisoners currently serving in Rhode Island. It does not apply to Craig Price, who murdered four of his Warwick neighbors as a teen and is now being held in a high-security Florida prison, since he is no longer serving time for the murders, but for numerous subsequent infractions committed in prison as an adult. It also would not prohibit life sentences in the future for youth who commit similarly heinous crimes.

The bill was influenced by four U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the last 17 years grounded in adolescent development research, holding that children are “constitutionally different” from adults and should not be subject to the country’s harshest penalties. In the past five years, the number of states that ban life-without-parole sentences for children has nearly quadrupled to a total of 19 and the District of Columbia, including Texas, West Virginia and Arkansas. An additional four states ban life-without-parole sentences for children in most cases. 

Consistent with patterns documented throughout the justice system, these draconian sentences
disproportionately impact children of color. According to Human Rights Watch, African-American youth are sentenced to life without parole as children at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youth. Research by the Sentencing Project has also shown that most children who are serving life-without-parole sentences have suffered extreme trauma and abuse. More than 80 percent of kids serving life witnessed violence in their homes and neighborhoods on a regular basis. More than 50 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls were physically abused; more than 20 percent of boys and 77 percent of girls were sexually abused.

The Campaign for Fair Sentencing for Youth, Rhode Island Parole Board Chairwoman Laura A. Pisaturo and representatives of the Diocese of Providence and the American Civil Liberties Union all testified in support of the bill last year, when it passed the Senate.

For more information, contact:
Meredyth R. Whitty, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 222-1923