2018 Legislative Session
Abortion (H 7340, S 2163)
With the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade hanging in the balance in light of a divided U.S. Supreme Court, Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Gayle Goldin have introduced legislation (H-7340, S-2163) that would codify the principles of that seminal court decision into state law and ensure that women in Rhode Island continue to have access to safe reproductive health care. The bill also repeals a number of state laws on the books that have been declared unconstitutional over the years. A major push is underway by a coalition of pro-choice organizations, including the ACLU, to enact the bill. You can read our statement on this legislation here.
Civil Rights Bills
Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners (S 2268, H 7182)
Legislation sponsored by Senator Erin Lynch Prata (S 2268) and Rep. Edith Ajello (H 7182) would strengthen the state’s limitation on shackling pregnant incarcerated women. A restrained pregnant woman cannot move freely or control her balance, placing both her and her fetus at risk. While state law restricts shackling pregnant women during transport to a medical facility and during labor, this legislation will also prohibit shackling to or from a court proceeding during an inmate’s third trimester. The bill passed the Senate last year, but died in the House. Read more about what the ACLU says about these bills.
Gender Rating in Insurance (H 7363, S 2399)
Nationwide, women have historically been charged more for the same health insurance as men, solely because of their gender, leaving women less able to purchase vital health care coverage. This practice is generally illegal under the Affordable Care Act, but gaps in the law allow the practice to continue. The uncertain status of the ACA in Congress further solidifies the need for protections at the state level. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation, H-7363, sponsored by Rep. Kazarian, which will ban gender rating in Rhode Island, regardless of any changes to federal law. Its companion bill, S-2399, is sponsored by Senator Sosnowski.
Criminal Justice Bills
Juvenile Sentencing (S 2272, H 7596)
Senator Harold M. Metts and Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell have sponsored legislation this year to address the issuance of lengthy prison sentences against juveniles who are charged as adults (S-2272, H-7596). As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to access consequences.” Yet many who commit their crimes as children are viewed as incapable of rehabilitation, and incarcerated long into adulthood. Under the proposed legislation, juveniles who are sentenced as adults would automatically come before the parole board after fifteen years, regardless of the length of their sentence, giving these young adults the chance to prove their fitness to return to society. Last year, the bill passed the Senate but died in the House. The ACLU testified in support of this important legislation.
Justice Reinvestment (H 7534, S 2603)
Following the passage of a number of bills improving the criminal justice system in 2017, H-7534, sponsored by Rep. McEntee and the companion legislation sponsored by Senator McCaffrey (S-2603), seek to promote two provisions that were left on the table. This bill would reclassify certain felonies into misdemeanors, reducing the collateral consequences for individuals convicted of those crimes. A second provision requires the preparation of prison impact statements, setting forth the estimated fiscal effect of the bill if enacted, for any bill creating new crimes or increasing prison sentences. These two reforms were approved by the Senate last year, but stripped from the enacted justice reinvestment package by the House at the last minute.
Earlier this year, the ACLU of Rhode Island released a report highlighting this disturbing pattern of overcriminalization, The Statehouse to Prison Pipeline.
Traffic Fines (H 7594)
H-7594, sponsored by Rep. Jason Knight, will allow drivers to receive a hearing to prove their inability to pay traffic fines, and authorize payment plans or reductions in the fines, before their license is suspended. Under current law, fined drivers must pay the entirety of the fine or their license to drive is suspended. This strict statute can trap people in poverty as they struggle not only to pay fines, but also to get to work once their licenses are suspended for failing to pay.
Between 2000 and 2017, the General Assembly created more than 170 new crimes, and increased prison sentences for dozens of existing offenses. Many of these “new” crimes make criminal offenses out of conduct that was already prohibited by existing laws, but establishing harsher penalties and more serious consequences.
This year looks to be no different, as multiple bills were introduced in this same spirit. H-7445 expands upon a bill passed last year that carved out a new offense for assaults committed against delivery drivers, to now include taxi drivers. Assault is, of course, already illegal regardless of the profession of the victim. Our full testimony on this bill can be found here. Other bills introduced this year seek to increase penalties on existing crimes. H-7390, for example, could increase the amount of time an offender spends in prison for damaging phone lines by five times, from 2 to 10 years. There is nothing suggesting that such sentencing increases are anything other than arbitrary.
Earlier this year, the ACLU of Rhode Island released a report, “Rhode Island’s Statehouse to Prison Pipeline” taking an in-depth look at this overzealous nature of the General Assembly’s approach to criminal law making.
Due Process Bills
Juvenile Interrogation (S 2430)
Legislation introduced by Senator William Conley, S 2430 will require that a minor have a parent or guardian present during questioning by law enforcement. As one of our recent cases shows, juveniles are generally less able to understand their legal rights while being interrogated, yet law enforcement does so as if they were well-informed adults possessing a full understanding of the weight of an interrogation. Rhode Island law generally protects children who are interrogated while at school, requiring a guardian to be present. Yet, if the child’s first interaction with a police officer occurs off campus, no such protection currently applies. This legislation would rectify that difference.
“Red Flag” Gun Law (H 7688, S 2492)
In the wake of the tragic shooting of students in Parkland, Florida, the General Assembly introduced so-called “Red Flag” legislation (H-7688, S-2492) aimed at removing firearms via an “extreme risk protection order” (ERPO) from individuals who pose a “significant danger of causing personal injury to self or others.” While the ACLU lauds this effort to reduce gun violence, we have serious concerns about the impact on basic due process rights. As well intentioned as this legislation is, its breadth and its lenient standards for both applying for and granting an ERPO are cause for great concern, which is explained in detail in this 14-page analysis of the legislation.
Expulsion of Senator Kettle (S 2490)
Following the filing of criminal charges against Senator Kettle, the RI Senate rushed to hold a vote seeking his expulsion. The State Constitution gives the Senate the power to punish its members, but that power should be exercised with an abundance of caution. In modern history, the RI Senate has not used this ability to expel a member. The ACLU urged the Senate to slow down the rush to vote in order to very carefully consider the procedures used to oust democratically elected members. Senator Kettle resigned before the scheduled hearing on S-2490. Read the ACLU's full letter to the Senate.
First Amendment Rights Bills
Net Neutrality (S 2008, H 7422)
It is nearly impossible to get through life without using the Internet, which is why it’s essential that our free speech rights be protected both on- and offline. Sponsored by Sen. Louis DiPalma and Rep. Aaron Regunberg, this legislation (S-2008, H-7422)would prohibit state-purchased or funded Internet service providers (ISPs) from halting, slowing, or otherwise tampering with the transfer of data, thus ensuring fair and equal access to all Internet content. Its enactment has become critical because last year the FCC repealed federal provisions requiring ISPs to abide by “net neutrality” principles that required Internet access to be open and non-discriminatory in operation.
Internet “Porn Tax” (S 2584)
This much talked-about bill (S-2584) would “require Internet service providers to provide digital blocking of sexual content and patently offensive material . . . and allow consumers to deactivate digital block upon payment of a twenty dollar ($20.00) fee.” In a commentary we have prepared on the bill, we note that the legislation is clearly unconstitutional. Its requirements that ISPs censor a wide variety of protected speech and that consumers pay a fee in order to access First Amendment-protected material run afoul of numerous court decisions that protect free speech on the Internet and bar content-based taxes on speech. Reports that the ACLU of Rhode Island has issued over the years -- which you can find here, here and here -- have documented just how poorly Internet filtering devices work, all to the detriment of the public, to academic freedom, and to the promotion of access to knowledge that the Internet is designed to facilitate. Read more on our blog.
Open Government Bills
Access to Public Records (H 7601, S 2422)
The Access to Public Records Act is a critical law, essential to promoting open government and an informed citizenry. Despite updates to the law in 2012, an audit by the ACLU and other groups concerned with transparency in government found the law’s enforcement policies insufficient to ensure compliance from dozens of agencies. The ACLU testified in support of H-7601, which would make it easier for the public to obtain documents of public concern, and supports its companion legislation, S-2422. Among other provisions, the legislation limits when documents such as arrest reports and correspondence by elected officials could be exempt from release, requires public bodies to specifically note the reasons for withholding any document and to prominently feature their public records policies on their websites, and allows courts to impose stronger penalties on those agencies that improperly withhold documents.
Prisoners' Rights Bills
Civil Death (S 2269)
S-2269, sponsored by Senator Goldin, would repeal the archaic statute declaring individuals serving life sentences as "legally dead" for virtually all purposes. As one of only three stataes still retaining this law on the books, it has continued to be put to use, as a recent case shows, where the Department of Corrections initially sought to bar an inmate from bringing a civil rights suit over his living conditions at the ACI, because as he was civially dead, he had no standing to sue. The ACLU strongly supports the repeal of this dangerous practice.
Drones (H 7756)
The ACLU supports H-7756, introduced by Rep. Filippi, to restrict the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, by law enforcement. Through a combination of increasingly cheaper, more sophisticated technology and financial incentives provided by the federal government, law enforcement entities nationwide have begun obtaining and using drones. This legislation would generally require that a warrant based on probable cause or reasonable suspicion be obtained prior to drone surveillance. It also requires that surveillance be conducted only on an articulated target and that any data captured on a non-target individual must be deleted within 24 hours.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Continuing to undermine the previously passed “Ban the Box” legislation that prohibited employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal record at the time of application, the General Assembly has once again introduced several bills that seek to expand the use of background checks in professions that rather than promote public safety, further push ex-offenders outside of a positive community atmosphere.
H-2281 would disqualify many otherwise well-suited individuals from working supervisory positions as contractors for any number of an enormous list of offenses entirely unrelated to the profession. Similarly, H-2280 and S-7606 would require taxi and ride share drivers to undergo fingerprinting and criminal record checks. S-2230 would authorize the denial or suspension of a medical laboratory license for persons convicted of any felony, or a misdemeanor for which “an essential element is dishonesty.”
The ACLU continues to voice our concerns about the breadth of these bills and the lack of consideration for the nature and gravity of the offense, the time that has passed since the offense, conduct and/or completion of the sentence, and the nature of the job held or sought.
Students Rights Bills
School Computer Privacy (H 7710)
For the past few years, school districts statewide have begun handing out school-owned computers for at-home use by students. These devices carry virtually no privacy protections, allowing schools to spy on students at home. The ACLU is a strong supporter of legislation introduced by Senator O'Grady (H 7710) allowing school officials to search the devices only when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the child has engaged in misconduct and prohibit remote access except in limited circumstances. In 2017, the ACLU published a report, entitled “High School Non-Confidential,” which highlighted the need for this legislation.
Over the Counter Medication in Schools (H 7570, S 2340)
Current Department of Health regulations, opposed by the ACLU, require parental permission for students to carry and self-administer any OTC medication in school. While this absurd zero-tolerance rule should never have been enacted in the first place, legislation was introduced last year to create a statutory exception for one medication – sunscreen. This new bill takes things a step further, highlighting the ridiculousness of the current policy, by also allowing students to bring to school over-the-counter products to treat menstrual cramps or vaginal yeast infections without a doctor’s or parent’s note. This legislation (H 7570) was sponsored by Rep. Donovan, and its companion legislation, S 2340, is sponsored by Senator Calkin. You can read our testimony here.
Voting Rights Bills
Voter Identification Repeal (H 7342)
This bill will repeal the existing statute that requires proof of identity be presented when voting. This barrier to voting serves to disenfranchise the poor, the elderly, racial minorities and other vulnerable groups that are least likely to have identification or the documents necessary to obtain ID. The ACLU testified in support of this repeal bill (H 7342) sponsored by Rep. Christopher Blazejewski.
Early Voting (H 7501)
H-7501 would establish a process for in-person early voting in Rhode Island. Early voting is a key way of increasing the ability of the public to exercise the franchise. The long lines that awaited some voters at polling places in the last general election – and many other past elections – confirm the utility of this approach, which a majority of states have already adopted in one form of another. The ACLU particularly applauds the fact that this bill, in order to best promote its goal, contains provisions for early voting periods that include some weekend days.
Prison-Based Gerrymandering (H 7530, S 2267)
When it comes to drawing new voting districts, any individuals incarcerated at the ACI in Cranston on the day the Census worker comes through are recorded as living on Howard Avenue at the prison, including individuals awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences who are still allowed to vote -- but from the address of their prior residence, not the ACI. As a result, Cranston is overrepresented in the General Assembly, while the districts from where the prisoners hail are underrepresented. Under the current plan, approximately 15% of House District 20 is comprised of voters who cannot vote in Cranston.
The ACLU supports legislation sponsored by Representative Anastasia Williams (H 7530), and companion legislation sponsored by Senator Harold Metts (S 2267) to rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes only, at their last known address. The Prison Policy Initiative joined us in support of this legislation.