Representative Batista (D-Dist. 12, Providence), who last year sponsored the legislation that created a statewide police body camera program, this year is setting his sights on reducing mass incarceration. Among the bills he is sponsoring are efforts to reform probation laws and to decriminalize the simple possession of drugs – aiming to treat addiction rather than exacerbate it through incarceration.
“Reforming our criminal justice system is an enormous task that is, realistically, going to take a lot of effort. We’re chipping away at outdated, failed approaches that impact communities like mine the hardest. I see these two bills as some of the bigger ‘chips’ that would go a long way toward helping people get on the right paths, rather than pushing them further along their downward spiral,” said Representative Batista. “Locking people up for minor violations or for their addiction creates lasting economic and social problems for them and for whole communities. Shifting our resources away from incarceration and toward alleviating poverty and advancing opportunities through education and employment would be in our state’s long term economic and social justice interests.”
The first bill (2022-H 7887) would require the setting of bail for defendants awaiting a hearing on a charge of a probation violation.
Currently, courts may order defendants held without bail for up to 10 days, not counting weekends and holidays, while they await a hearing. That means, regardless of the merits of the case against them, they can be sent to jail long enough to lose their jobs and their housing, and cause other serious problems in their lives.
At the hearing for the bill, Representative Batista, who is an attorney, gave an example of a client he had represented days ago who was accused of violating a no-contact order based on facts that clearly were not a violation. Although the judge in this particular case saw fit to grant bail, because the client was on probation when she was charged with the violation, she could have been denied bail and sent to the ACI, even if the charge itself is without merit.
The second bill (2022-H 7896) would decriminalize simple possession of all drugs, except fentanyl, in an effort to deal with drug addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal act. Under the bill, simple possession of less than one ounce any drug except fentanyl would be civil violation punishable by a $100 fine for a first offense and up to $300 for subsequent offenses. Offenders would also have to complete drug counseling and community service. It would eliminate possible drug possession for personal use as a reasonable suspicion or probable cause for police searches of vehicles or premises.
Selling drugs would remain criminal, but would no longer be punishable by life sentences and up to $500,000 in fines. Maximum sentences would range from one year and $10,000 fines for Schedule V drugs to 30 years and $100,000 for schedule I or II substances.
“Our justice system must catch up to what our medical community has long recognized: addiction is a disease. People who are addicted need treatment, not jail. People addicted to drugs can rack up convictions, parole, violations, and criminal records that prevent them from finding jobs and homes, fueling hopelessness and further addiction. It harms individuals and it adds up to enormous burdens on poor neighborhoods,” said Representative Batista. “The war on drugs has not helped stop drug use; it has only filled our prisons and added to the destruction that drugs cause to our communities. To reduce drug use, we need treatment, not incarceration.”
Representative Batista recognizes the scope of this problem and encourages his colleagues and the public to watch documentaries such as “13th” on Netflix or “Free Meek” on Amazon Prime to get a better understanding of how the criminal justice system works. He also recommends reading books such as “Solitary” by Albert Woodfox and “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson.
Both bills are currently before the House Judiciary Committee.