Rep. Felix introduces slate of criminal justice reform bills

 

STATE HOUSE – Rep. Leonela Felix has introduced a slate of criminal justice reform bills to make it easier for those released from prison to reintegrate into their community by addressing issues including solitary confinement, the sealing of dismissed charges, free phone calls for inmates and the elimination of cash bail for misdemeanor charges.

“These bills cover a wide range of issues in our criminal justice system, but they share a common goal of reducing recidivism and making it easier for individuals to successfully re-enter society when they are released from prison,” said Representative Felix (D-Dist. 61, Pawtucket). “Our priority as a community should be to keep our neighbors safe, inside and outside of prison.”

Representative Felix is reintroducing a bill (2024-H 7637, 2024-S 2462) alongside Sen. Jonathon Acosta (D-Dist. 16, Central Falls, Pawtucket) to establish an oversight committee to monitor the use of restrictive housing, know commonly as “solitary confinement.” It would also lay out clear guidelines for when restrictive housing could be used, mandate regular visits from medical professionals, senior correctional supervisors and programming staff to those in restrictive housing, ensure minimum time spent outside the cell and provide access to programming and work assignments.

“Studies show that prolonged isolation leads to severe psychological distress, particularly for individuals with serious mental illnesses, which can exacerbate the risk of violence. By limiting the use of this harmful practice, we can prioritize rehabilitation over punishment and, ultimately, create a safer society for all,” said Representative Felix.

Said Brandon Robinson, community organizer for Open Doors Rhode Island, “It is so important to have oversight of the interactions between correctional officers and inmates, especially in solitary confinement. Inmates are locked away from the public, but those in solitary confinement are locked away from even the prison community, unseen and unheard. If their rights are being violated, there are no witnesses. This bill provides needed oversight and medical attention.”

The Rhode Island Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian-American and Pacific Islander Caucus (RIBLIA) announced this bill as one of its legislative priorities for the session. Representative Felix co-chairs RIBLIA with Senator Acosta.

Another bill (2024-H 7526) would require district courts to automatically seal individual counts of criminal complaints once they are dismissed by the court. Currently in Rhode Island, criminal cases that are dismissed are automatically sealed, but in cases where individual criminal counts are dismissed but the entire case it not, the defendant will have to file a motion with the court to seal those dismissed counts.

“Having a criminal record is a severe hardship for individuals trying to find housing and employment, as I know from personal experience,” said Representative Felix. “Now consider that currently individuals in Rhode Island continue to suffer this hardship for charges that have been dismissed, that they have essentially been found not guilty of, and must file a motion to seal them. This goes against good policy and fairness, and seems preposterous to me when the court has the ability to do it automatically themselves.”

This bill was heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 15 and is awaiting a committee vote to advance to the House floor. It is supported by the Department of Corrections and the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

A third bill (2024-H 7525, 2024-S 2233), which is sponsored by Sen. Meghan E. Kallman (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket, Providence) in the Senate, would require the Department of Corrections to provide free communication services and telephone calls for inmates and those held in detention.

“Keeping incarcerated persons from communicating with their families is part of the punishment process, not the rehabilitation process. When prisons charge for phone calls, inmates must choose between buying food from the commissary, personal hygiene items and paying inflated rates to communicate with their family, all from the $.50 to $3 per day they may be earning through their labor,” said Robinson. “Free calls go a long way to avoid breaking up family relationships. This bill goes a long way to foster reintegration back into the community and reduce recidivism.”

Another bill (2024-H 7524) would prohibit cash bail for misdemeanor offices, while allowing the court to set non-monetary conditions of bail to ensure defendants appear in court as required. A 2022 study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights showed that there are “stark racial and gender disparities” in the cash bail system and that more than 60% of the roughly 450,000 defendants awaiting trial are detained because they cannot afford to post bail. Studies also link cash bail and pre-trial detention to increased recidivism, increased unemployment and homelessness, and family detachment.

 “If you cannot afford to post bail you are serving a sentence before you have been found guilty or been convicted for any crime,” said Representative Felix. “Illinois has recently ended cash bail after seeing positive results from eliminating cash bail in Cook County, with a smaller population in jail and lower rate of recidivism. A similar model can work here in Rhode Island.”

This bill was heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 15 and is awaiting a committee vote to advance to the House floor. It is supported by the Office of the Public Defender. A similar, but not identical, bill (2024-S-2217) is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Ana B. Quezada (D-Dist. 2, Providence)

Another bill (2024-H 7523) would allow incarcerated individuals who are set for release to request and receive their vital health records at no charge for their first request.

“A huge part of reintegration is getting gainful employment and getting back on your feet. Charging the newly released fees for essential information while they are still struggling hurts their reintegration into the community,” said Robinson.

The final bill (2024-H 7527, 2024-S 2100) would amend the definitions of felonies, misdemeanors, and petty misdemeanors such that a criminal offense would be classified as a misdemeanor and no longer a felony solely because it is punishable by a fine of more than $1,000. Senator Acosta is sponsoring this bill in the Senate and it is also one of RIBLIA’s 2024 policy priorities.

 

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