Community groups call for passage of bail reform legislation

Rep. Batista, Sen. Kallman bill would reduce incarceration of those awaiting probation violation hearings

 

STATE HOUSE – Advocates for justice reform today called for passage of legislation to be introduced by Rep. José Batista and Sen. Meghan E. Kallman to change a law that results in, on average, 85% of those accused of probation violation being denied bail at their initial presentments.

“If we are truly committed to the success of all Rhode Island communities and families, we must end mass incarceration. The very system that is supposed to ensure the safety of society is exactly what is causing unemployment, poverty, homelessness and family instability for thousands of Rhode Islanders every year. Our state needs to lift its heavy-handed approach to incarceration, probation and bail, because it’s making it prohibitively difficult for individuals who have been involved with the justice system to succeed at maintaining a stable life for themselves and their families,” said Senator Kallman (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket, Providence),

Said Representative Batista (D-Dist. 12, Providence), “It is self-defeating for a system that purports to be rehabilitative to routinely lock people up without due process long enough for them to lose their jobs, their homes and even their children. Reforming bail for alleged probation violations is one important step toward reducing Rhode Island’s destructively high incarceration rate and ending a hopeless cycle that perpetuates poverty and all of its associated problems.”

Representative Batista and Senator Kallman are reintroducing legislation they introduced last year (2023-H 5571, 2023-S 0411) to reform a law that currently allows anyone arrested for an alleged probation violation to be held without bail for up to 10 days, not counting weekend and holidays, awaiting a hearing on the violation. Although the statute provides judges the discretion to grant bail, in 2022, bail was denied to 85% of those Rhode Islanders accused of violating the terms of their probation.

The proposed legislation would instead establish a presumption of release of those accused of probation violations while they await a hearing, and allow a judge to require reasonable bail only if necessary to ensure the defendant’s appearance in court.

“People deserve due process. You are not supposed to be guilty until proven innocent,” said Melonie Perez, staff organizer of the Behind the Walls Committee at Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), which is leading a broad coalition of more than 30 community advocacy groups supporting the bill.

According to DARE, a 2015 study found that in practice, people were actually held an average of 31 days while waiting for a violation hearing in Rhode Island, that that alleged probation violators make up 37% of all pretrial admissions to the ACI.

Regardless of the outcome of their hearing, the time spent behind bars waiting for the hearing is long enough for people to lose their jobs, fall behind on bills and rent, get evicted and lose custody of their children, even if they are eventually cleared of the violation. Many people take plea deals — which can include longer periods of probation — because they can’t afford those devastating consequences.

Speakers at today’s State House rally organized by DARE included several individuals who are currently on probation. They described being fearful of the constant possibility that they could be incarcerated for weeks at any time simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Vincent Lucas, who is on probation and now works as a peer recovery specialist, talked about how he’s afraid to give a ride to the people he helps because if one of them has illicit drugs on them, he could end up at the ACI.

Brandon Robinson, who is a community organizer and lobbyist for OpenDoors and is also on probation, spoke about how the current system jeopardizes the work he’s done to move his life, and the lives of others, forward.

“It makes me vulnerable of losing everything I’ve worked hard for and makes me vulnerable for not being able to help others,” he said.

Rhode Island has the second-highest rate of people on probation in the nation, behind only Georgia, and nearly double the national average. Individuals can face a probation violation for issues as minor and vague as “failing to keep the peace,” which can result in their reincarceration for offenses that, on their own, would not result in jail time.

The system also exacerbates racial injustices: According to DARE, in 2022, 1 in 4 defendants in probation violation cases were Black, although Black Rhode Islanders represent only 1 in 14 in the general population. One in 6 Black men in Rhode Island is on probation at any given time.

 

 

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