A Day in the ACLU’s Life at the State House - News from The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, ACLU of Rhode Island News, RIACLU News

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A Day in the ACLU’s Life at the State House

Posted: February 22, 2017|

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At the end of each General Assembly session, we note that our Affiliate lobbied on literally hundreds of bills during the session.  If you wonder how that could possibly be, we thought it would be useful to pick a relatively quiet day early in the session to give you an idea.

Committee hearings will really start to ramp up next week when legislators come back from their winter break, but just a week ago – on Valentine’s Day – the ACLU staff managed to lobby on nine bills in three different committees. Here’s what it was like that evening:

* In House Corporations Committee, we raised concerns about a bill creating a prescription drug review commission designed to promote transparency in drug prescription pricing (H 5390). We noted that, notwithstanding its goal, the bill exempted from disclosure under the Access to Public Records Act (APRA) all records that drug manufacturers provided the commission, including “research and development costs that are paid with public funds.” We argued that, at a minimum, records like those deserved public scrutiny.

* Meanwhile, in Senate Judiciary Committee, legislators heard testimony on another bill amending APRA, this one designed to protect academics from harassment from overly burdensome open records requests (H 5098). When the bill was introduced last year, the ACLU strongly objected to its language, which would have exempted from public disclosure a wide range of records maintained by educational institutions. Thanks to ACLU lobbying, the bill was amended this year so that it merely clarifies that draft documents of academics at our public educational institutions are protected from disclosure to the same extent that draft records of other state agencies are.

* The main venue for ACLU activity that evening was the House Judiciary Committee. Keeping with the APRA theme, the Committee’s first action was passage of an important open government bill (H 5347A) that the ACLU helped draft, providing for the release of all State Police and Attorney General records surrounding their 38 Studios investigation. We had previously expressed strong support for release of the records.

* The Committee then turned to a number of criminal justice bills on which the Affiliate testified. First up, the ACLU joined with the Public Defender and the RI Coalition for the Homeless to support legislation requiring municipal courts to provide free attorneys to indigent defendants charged with ordinance violations that could result in imprisonment (H 5187). All the testifiers noted that the bill merely codified what the Constitution already requires, but what some municipalities are ignoring.

* The ACLU and the Public Defender’s office then had the thankless task of opposing a bill providing for the automatic termination of parental rights (TPR) to any person convicted of sexual assault that results in the birth of a child (H 5215). While impossible to argue with the concept of the bill in principle, the ACLU argued that it inappropriately applied to instances of statutory rape (the "Romeo and Juliet" clause) and, further, that an automatic termination of parental rights – for any reason – ran afoul of U.S. Supreme Court precedents requiring certain due process elements in TPR proceedings.

* A bill increasing the punishment for damaging electric and communication equipment from two years to ten years imprisonment drew opposition from us (H 5264). The arbitrary increasing of criminal penalties – in this instance quintupling the prison time – without any meaningful reason or consideration of the fiscal costs is something the ACLU has raised concerns about for years, and what has led to the epidemic of mass incarceration that we continue to face and challenge.

* “Blue lives matter” came to the committee that night with a bill that would have enhanced the penalties for crimes committed against a police officer by making them “hate crimes.” (H 5260) The ACLU, joined by R.I. Jobs with Justice, testified that treating crimes against police officers as hate crimes – the same as criminal offenses aimed directly at African-Americans or members of the LGBTQ community – devalued the decades-long discrimination that truly marginalized communities have faced, including lynchings and prison sentences just for the “crime” of being who they are.

* The ACLU went on to testify on a comprehensive bill aimed at the scourge of human trafficking (H 5300).  While we expressed support for some provisions in the bill, such as ones making it easier for victims who are undocumented immigrants to apply for special visas, we opposed others, including a section that went well beyond the specific subject of the bill to make every “john” involved in consensual sexual activity with a sex worker a felon.

* Finally, we rounded out the night by testifying against the Attorney General’s so-called revenge porn legislation, which, we noted in our testimony, required neither revenge nor porn to subject a person to criminal penalties (H 5304). The bill, making it a crime to electronically transmit nude or sexually explicit images without the person’s consent, was also opposed by the Media Coalition and the R.I. Press Association. Publishing some of the photos from Abu Ghraib or, on a less grave note, pictures of Anthony Weiner’s too-exposed body part could be criminal under this bill. That is why Governor Gina Raimondo vetoed this legislation last year and, the ACLU hopes, will veto it again if it is not amended to address the legitimate concerns raised by civil liberties advocates and the media.

Of course, this list covers only bills that had committee hearings that evening, and does not include the many other bills that the ACLU talked informally with legislators about. But we hope it gives you some idea of how we spend our evenings during the legislative session and the workload that awaits us every day.

Starting next week, check out the legislative section of our website for continuing updates on the General Assembly session.

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