riaclu.org - 2020 Legislative Session


Protecting Civil Liberties in Rhode Island for Over 50 Years


2020 Legislative Session

Following the monumental passage of the Reproductive Privacy Act in 2019, which finally codified the principles of Roe v. Wade into Rhode Island law and guaranteed protection of safe, legal abortion in the Ocean State, it became clear that momentum towards further proactive legislation would continue into this year’s legislative session. In the first few weeks of the session, we have joined with many other groups in supporting the introduction of a bill to expand upon the RPA by extending healthcare coverage for abortions to Medicaid recipients and state employees.

But abortion is unlikely to define the 2020 session the way it did last year’s, and there are many other issues vying to take its place. The Governor’s FY2021 budget proposal reintroduces marijuana legalization for consideration, for example, and the Affiliate has already testified on controversial bills relating to medical marijuana, mandatory sentencing, and police databases. As in past years, we are preparing for hundreds of other bills that will impact civil liberties for better or for worse.

We’ll be updating this page as the session continues, so keep checking in for news on the most recent and most important legislation that we’re tracking and commenting on. And, as always, to learn how you can advocate alongside the ACLU at the state house, visit our Advocacy 101 page.

UPDATE 6/19/2020: After cancelling session for more than two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rhode Island legislature began to hold select committee hearings in May 2020, and the two chambers held their first floor sessions in three months on June 17. After passing the supplemental budget, the legislature will go into recess and then return in July 2020 to pass the FY 2021 budget. We will continue updating this page as more information becomes available.

For more information on the ACLU of Rhode Island's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, visit here


Abortion Bills

Fetal Heartbeat Resolution (H 7355)Held for Further Study

Although this resolution would create no binding legal language or alter the protections codified just last session by the Reproductive Privacy Act, we opposed H 7355, which would claim to “recognize” that the existence of a fetal heartbeat of flutter is evidence of the existence of human life. We noted that preventing any type of legislative assertion based on dangerous, scientifically unsound ideological perspectives of abortion was critical, and that the General Assembly should not be eroding, even symbolically, the recognition that access to safe and legal abortion is protected in Rhode Island.

Civil Rights Bills

Gender Rating in Health Insurance (S 2125, H 7440)Passed Senate, Held for Further Study in House

Nationwide, women have historically been charged more for the same health insurance than 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 the uncertain status of Obamacare is concerning. This legislation, sponsored by Senator Susan Sosnowski and Representative Katherine Kazarian, would codify this ban into Rhode Island law. We testified in support of the bill in both the House and Senate. Although this bill has already passed on the Senate floor, it has been held for further study in the House. 

During hearings on the FY 2021 budget, the ACLU, along with other Rhode Island organizations, additionally encouraged the legislature to include this critical provision in Article 20, which would codify many important protections from the ACA into Rhode Island law but did not contain language to include a prohibition on gender rating. 

Preservation of Families with Disabilities (H 7295, S 2139)Passed Senate, Held for Further Study in House

Although the version of this bill introduced last year would have provided important and comprehensive protections for parents with disabilities and was strongly supported by the ACLU, a revised version introduced this session raises many concerns. This year’s bill, introduced as H 7295 and S 2139, is significantly weaker than the protections provided under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and could therefore cause considerable confusion and violations in its implementation.

Source of Income Discrimination (S 2134)Held For Further Study

Introduced by Senator Harold Metts, S 2134 would provide a critical protection against housing discrimination based on a potential tenant’s source of income, an issue which particularly impacts marginalized communities. Currently, landlords can deny housing applications simply because the applicant uses income originating from areas such as Social Security, child support payments, or Section 8 vouchers. We supported this legislation which would prohibit this harmful practice and ensure that no tenant is denied housing due to the origin of their rent money.

Use of Campaign Funds for Childcare (S 2273)Passed Senate

Currently, candidates can use campaign funds for a broad and disparate range of expenses, from graduation gifts to wine and meals. The Federal Election Commission has previously concluded that childcare, if the need for childcare arises as a result of campaign activities, can additionally be a permissible usage of campaign funding. Although the balancing of family and politics is always difficult, it is a particular burden for female candidates, and this legislation would further promote involvement in democracy for a more diverse group of candidates. We supported S 2273, introduced by Senator Gayle Goldin, which would essentially codify the FEC decision into Rhode Island election law.

Gender Inclusive Bathrooms (S 2557)Held for Further Study

For individuals who are transgender or gender non-conforming, the ability to access private and safe bathroom facilities is critical. We supported S 2557, which would require that all newly constructed single-user public bathroom facilities be gender neutral, and thus allow all Rhode Islanders to access bathrooms in a non-stigmatizing manner.

Office of Civil Rights Advocate (S 2585)Passed Senate

Though the protection of civil rights is a laudable goal, it is critical to ensure that legislation with the intention of doing so does not unintentionally facilitate unconstitutional overreaches of power. This bill would create an entirely new power for the Office of Civil Rights Advocate within the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office which would allow for this office to summon any person who may have information about potentially unlawful activities and compel them to disclose their knowledge; although the Attorney General has claimed that this power would allow for his office to more effectively investigate police misconduct, the lack of clear limitations within the bill means that, potentially, this power could be used against individuals who protested police brutality, for example, or organized a march during which some participants engaged in unlawful activities. For this reason, and other First Amendment related issues which are explained further in our testimony, we testified in opposition to this inappropriate broadening of power.

Criminal Justice Bills

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing (S 2004B, H 7102)Passed

The ACLU has consistently opposed the imposition of mandatory minimum sentencing terms on the grounds that they are ineffective, costly, eliminate individualized consideration of the offender and the circumstances of the offense, and place too much power in the hands of prosecutors instead of neutral judges. A bill concerning “ghost guns”, or guns which are untraceable or do not appear on metal detectors, heard in both the House and the Senate in the second week of the session, contains such a provision which would have imposed such mandatory minimum sentences for new criminal offenses relating to weapons. We testified in opposition, arguing that the state should refrain from passing legislation that expands the use of mandatory minimum sentencing procedures.

Bail Reform for Misdemeanors (S 2288, H 7143)Held for Further Study

While wealthier individuals who can post bail are permitted to go home while awaiting their hearings, those without immediate cash flow are forced to stay in jail until their case is heard, creating a wealth-based incarceration system. Even when an individual is not convicted, a stay in jail for as short as a day can have devastating effects on their job, housing, and the life of their family. We supported legislation, H 7143 and S 2288, introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams and Senator Ana Quezada, which confronts this aspect of the criminal justice system by allowing the pretrial release of individuals without the requirement of monetary bail for most misdemeanor charges.

“Porch Pirate” Penalties (H 7035)Held for Further Study

One of many bills which would generate a “new” crime would create specific penalties for individuals who commit larceny by stealing packages from either a house, office, or other dwelling. Despite preexisting penalties for crimes of theft, of which this offense would certainly fall under, H 7035 would additionally allow for confiscation of an individual’s car if they used the car to commit this "porch piracy" offense. We testified in opposition to this bill, noting that the confiscation of such a critical asset could severely impact both rehabilitation of the individual and the lives of their family members.

Cruelty to Animals (H 7299)Held for Further Study

Only a few years ago, the General Assembly enacted legislation which created harsh penalties for any person convicted of unnecessary cruelty to an animal, including hoarding, despite opposition from the ACLU and mental health advocacy groups who expressed concerns about the criminalization of this activity, which can be a symptom of some mental illness. We testified in opposition to H 7299, which would unnecessarily expand the punishments which can be doled out under the animal cruelty laws, including for hoarding offenses.

Two similar bills, H 7545 and H 7546, which we also opposed, would further expand punishments for this offense, and would subject an individual convicted of such offenses to either a twnety-year ban or lifetime ban, respectively, on owning or excercising control over animals. 

Bills Which Contribute to the Statehouse-To-Prison Pipeline

The ACLU has been consistent with our criticisms of pieces of legislation which lend themselves to the continuance of the statehouse-to-prison pipeline by either creating new crimes or increasing penalties for crimes which already exist. Each legislative session, dozens of bills are introduced, and a  number of them passed, which counteract the important work of criminal justice reform, as these new crimes and increased sentences are often arbitrary and almost always unnecessary. The 2020 session is no exception; already, several bills have been heard which would needlessly bolster mass incarceration rather than address the need for reform of the criminal justice system. We testified against the following bills on this basis.

H 7026 would create a new crime for making a knowingly false 911 call and inflict harsh penalties for conviction.

H 7027 would increase fines, sentence lengths, and driver’s license suspension periods for the crime of leaving the scene of the accident.

H 7033 would increase the maximum prison sentence and driver’s license suspension period for the crime of driving to endanger.

S 2083 would expand the crime of “exploiting the elderly” to subject more defendants to its harsh penalties.

Wrongful Conviction (H 7086)Passed House

Introduced by Representative Patricia Serpa, H 7086 would allow for any person sentenced to prison for longer than a year who is found to have been wrongfully convicted to petition for compensation and damages. We supported this important legislation which would allow for individuals who have been unjustly thrust into the criminal justice system to ensure that they have the resources to reintegrate into the community and recalibrate their lives.

DUI Fees (H 7171, Article 6)Held for Further Study

Though the ACLU recognizes the importance of substance abuse education, a proposed article in the FY 2021 budget would fund such programs by implementing a hefty financial penalty on those convicted of either a DUI or refusal to submit to a breathalyzer to fund those programs. Considering the already steep financial penalties for such an offense, and the potential for additional penalties to further, negatively impact an individual’s housing, employment, and rehabilitation, we opposed this provision.

Criminal Isolation of Elders (H 7322)Held for Further Study

Despite being vetoed by the Governor in 2018, H 7322, which would criminalize caretakers from  “isolating elders” but inappropriately includes such actions as throwing away their junk mail or screening their phone calls for telemarketers, was again introduced and opposed by the ACLU. We noted that the bill largely criminalized conduct currently prohibited under elder abuse law, and created numerous problems in its expansion of the current statute.

Due Process Bills

Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (H 7235)Held For Further Study

Opposed by the ACLU, this legislation would allow Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN) to attest to a patient’s mental health condition and participate in certifying patients for mandated outpatient treatment, an action which is presently something that only doctors can do. Although we understand the role that APRNs play in the mental health community, we argued that when it comes to medical recommendations for involuntary treatment, patients are stripped of critical elements of due process when the decision is in the hands of anyone but those of a physician.

Juvenile Interrogation (H 7431)Held for Further Study

It’s no surprise that juveniles are generally less able than adults to understand, and act upon, their legal rights while being questioned, but law enforcement proceeds as if they are well-informed adults with a full grasp of the situation. H 7431, introduced by Rep. Rebecca Kislak, would prohibit the questioning of a juvenile suspected of criminal activity without a parent or legal guardian present. A case recently handled by the ACLU, in which an 8-year-old girl was removed from a school bus, transported to the police, interrogated, and detained without her parents’ knowledge, encapsulates the need for this important legislation.

First Amendment Rights Bills

Live Entertainment Restrictions (H 7193)Held for Further Study

The ACLU has previously opposed legislation which would give broad authority to municipalities to regulate and prohibit “live entertainment,” since such discretion and authority has great potential to raise serious First Amendment concerns. A bill introduced this session, H 7193, would give this authority to the town of Bristol, and we urged its rejection.

Net Neutrality (H 7553, S 2103)Held For Further Study in House; Passed out of Senate Committee

“Net Neutrality” guarantees that access to the internet remains non-discriminatory and that internet service providers can’t choose what sites you have access to or how quickly you can access them; the same principle underlies the regulation of phone companies, ensuring that your connection to Pizza Hut isn’t faster to the pizza place down the street simply because Pizza Hut pays for faster connection times. We testified in favor of this critical legislation, H 7553 and S 2103, introduced by Representative Joseph Solomon and Senator Louis DiPalma, noting that open and equal access is a cornerstone of the ubiquitously used and indispensable medium of the internet. This legislation has previously passed the Senate, only to die in the House.

Tax on Lobbying (H 7171, Article 8)Held for Further Study

The proposed FY 2021 budget includes a proposed sales tax on “lobbying services.” We argued that this tax would amount to a direct levy on the exercise of political speech, a quintessential First Amendment activity. We additionally noted that by solely applying this tax to lobbying, and not any peripheral services related to it – such as public relations or political consulting – the core exercise of the First Amendment right to petition the government for the redress of grievances was particularly being singled out for adverse treatment. Our testimony noted that this budget provision could have a significant fiscal impact on many non-profit organizations that engage in lobbying, including the ACLU itself.

Tuition Tax Credits (H 7171, Article 10)Held for Further Study

We opposed a provision within the proposed FY 2021 budget which would expand the tax credit program for businesses that make donations to “scholarship organizations” which funnel money to private and parochial schools for tuition purposes. Although parents have the right to send their children to religious schools, they should not be financially supported by taxpayers, especially when the Rhode Island public school system is in a state of disarray.

Free Speech Bills

Child Erotica (H 7737)Held for Further Study

Although child pornography is a scourge, we opposed a piece of legislation, H 7737, that would carve out a new exception to the First Amendment criminalizing the possession or display of vaguely defined “child erotica” when used for the “specific purpose of sexual gratification  . . . from viewing the visual portrayals.” The distribution or display of constitutionally protected conduct cannot be elevated to a criminal offense solely because of how the person viewing it reacts, yet this bill would unconstitutionally subject individuals to punishment based on a prediction of how they respond to certain types of protected speech.

Ban on Masks (H 7543)Held for Further Study

Opposed by the ACLU, H 7543 would make it a crime for a person to, during a parade, demonstration, or rally, wear a gas mask, wear protective clothing or equipment designed to prevent a person from injury, or wear any mask at all with the “intent to intimidate another person.” This bill raises serious First Amendment issues in its attempt to allow the government to decide whether a mask in lawful free speech exercises is “intimidating” or not and is especially concerning in its ban on the use of protective clothing.

Gay and Lesbian Rights Bills

Uniform Parentage (S 2136A, H 7541)Passed

We supported S 2136A, introduced by Senator Erin Lynch Prata, which would update Rhode Island’s parentage and adoption laws to reflect the diversity of families that live in the state. This bill clears up ambiguities by guaranteeing the right for LGBTQ families to establish parentage in a manner consistent with all other families and would provide clear routes for parentage of children born through assisted reproduction. A similar version of this bill was introduced in the House, H 7541. This bill passed towards the end of the session, finally statutorily ensuring such critical rights for all families in Rhode Island. 

Immigrants' Rights Bills

Tenant Immigration Status (S 2258)Held for Further Study

We supported S 2258, introduced by Senator Harold Metts, which would prevent landlords from inquiring about the immigration status of their tenants or potential tenants. We noted that this legislation is critical for ensuring that families which include undocumented individuals can maintain housing without fear. This bill would also confront issues of racial profiling by restricting the ability for a landlord to stereotype and inquire after a tenant or potential tenant’s immigration status.

Open Government Bills

APRA Exemption for Public Employee Residency (H 7351, H 7411, S 2480)Held For Further Study

A series of bills introduced this session in both chambers, H 7351H 7411, and S 2480, would exempt from open records requests the disclosure of the municipality of residency for a public employee or police officer. We opposed the legislation, noting that the public has a right to know whether their law enforcement personnel are from their immediate communities or not, and that such exemptions provide a false sense of security in a time when even more specific personal information can be found online.

Police Practices Bills

State Police Computer System (H 7101, S 2080)Held for Further Study

After a shooting in Rhode Island highlighted interjurisdictional gaps in information among police departments, a bill (H 7101, S 2080) was introduced which would allow the state police to create a comprehensive, statewide records management program. While we did not take a position on the bill in concept, we suggested several amendments to the legislation which would strengthen privacy protections regarding the use of the database, including requirements similar to federal law which restrict the collection of information about First Amendment-protected activities and only allow for the collection of certain information if there is reasonable suspicion that an individual is involved in criminal conduct.

Review of the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (S 2867)Passed

This important piece of legislation created a legislative task force to thoroughly review the law enforcement officer’s bill of rights. As the entire country begins to critically reexamine and reconsider the procedural protections which are given to law enforcement officials, such a legislative commission is a simple and necessary first step towards holding law enforcement officers and departments accountable for their misconduct. At the same time, while supporting this legislation, we noted that it is just as important to recognize that this task force should be implemented alongside several important reform efforts and bills, including but not limited to legislation which eradicate the principle of “qualified immunity” that often allows for such misconduct to go unpunished and unchecked.

Prisoners' Rights Bills

Civil Death (H 7544)Held for Further Study

Rhode Island remains one of only three states to still have a statute on the books which declares any person serving a life sentence in prison “civilly dead.” This provision is so archaic that the Harvard Law Review called it “outworn as a mode of punishment” back in 1937. Unfortunately, Rhode Island not only retains but utilizes the statute; the Department of Corrections as recently as 2018 sought to bar an inmate from bringing a civil rights suit over his living conditions at the ACI because he was “civilly dead.” This legislation, strongly supported by the ACLU and introduced by Representative Evan Shanley (H 7544), would repeal this outmoded statute.

Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills

Expungement of Marijuana-Related Offenses (H 7091, H 7192)Held For Further Study

In 2016, the ACLU released a report which showed that Black residents of Rhode Island were three times as likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white residents. Among other things, the presence of a criminal record can make it more difficult for individuals to find employment, obtain occupational licenses, and find housing. Especially given the significant racial disparities evident in drug-related offenses, it is unconscionable to burden individuals with a criminal record for a victimless crime.

Two bills introduced this session, H 7091 and H 7142, introduced by Representative Jason Knight and Representative Anastasia Williams, respectively, would provide avenues for expungement of certain offenses related to drug possession. H 7091 would allow for the expungement of felony simple possession offenses five years after the completion of a sentence, and H 7142 would provide for an automatic expungement process for individuals convicted of a crime of marijuana possession. Both bills would ensure rehabilitation and community reintegration following an individual’s involvement with the criminal justice system and would provide for the appropriate legal avenues to do so. We testified in favor of both pieces of legislation.

Criminal Record Checks

Often, seemingly innocuous licensing bills have provisions including expansive and vague language which could render individuals with a criminal background, no matter what crimes they have been convicted of or how long ago their conviction was, unable to procure certain occupational licenses. The following are examples of this type of legislation that have already been the subject of public hearings.

H 7447 would broadly allow the denial of a license for genetic counseling for a wide range of offenses and has no process for appeal or discretionary consideration for individuals who have demonstrated rehabilitation or whose crimes were committed far in the past.

H 7549 would allow for the denial of a background check clearance certificate to certain license applicants to drive passengers for hire based on a broad and disparate range of offenses.

S 2522 concerned the licensing of medical lab professionals. Although the bill contained many protections for individuals with criminal records applying for this license, we argued that, unlike other licensed professions which require background checks, medical professionals are not in contact with the public and thus should not be subject to a background check in the first place. 

Sex Offenders in Hotels (H 7477)Held for Further Study

H 7477 would allow any innkeeper or hotel to forcibly remove a level III sex offender from their premises if the sex offender resides there for thirty days or more; we opposed the legislation and noted that housing instability is a major contributor to recidivism, and that creating tumultuous housing situations can make it more difficult for an ex-offender to continue with their rehabilitation.

Geriatric Parole (H 7171, Article 15)Held for Further Study

An important component of the FY 2021 proposed budget includes an Article that would implement a procedure for geriatric parole in Rhode Island. We were highly supportive of this proposal, which would ensure that the state does not need to continue paying for the incarceration of individuals whose age and health needs preclude them from being significant risks to public safety. Especially in the perspective of both national and statewide campaigns to examine the financial and social impacts of mass incarceration, this proposal, which make eligible for parole some offenders over the age of 65, is effectively pragmatic and compassionate.

Marijuana Expungement (H 7141)Held for Further Study

The presence of a criminal record can make accessing employment, occupational licensure, housing, and education more difficult and complex. With several legislative initiatives introduced in the past years that would legalize recreational marijuana, we supported tangential legislation which would ensure that individuals who are burdened with criminal records for marijuana-related crimes have an opportunity to expunge the offenses from their records. Especially given the racial disparities evident in the enforcement of these criminal laws, the victimless nature of the offenses, and the prospective complete decriminalization of marijuana possession and usage, this legislation is particularly important.

Moral Turpitude (S 2484)Held for Further Study

“Moral Turpitude” is a legally ambiguous and antiquated term that can be found in several professional licensing statutes as a basis on which to deny or revoke a person’s professional license. The first definition of the phrase in the current edition of Black’s Law Dictionary is “conduct that is contrary to justice, honesty or morality” – not terribly helpful, and certainly not limiting.

While it has been many years since the General Assembly has enacted a licensing statute using this term, a few dozen statutory provisions contain this standard. Since no person should fear being denied entry to a profession due to this hopelessly vague term, we testified in support of this legislation, S 2484, introduced by Sen. Joshua Miller, to eliminate the phrase from those statutes.

Sex Offenders Bills

Juvenile Sex Offenders (H 7197)Held For Further Study

Currently, any juvenile charged with a serious sex offense can be waived into adult court where conviction of, or plea to, an offense would automatically subject them to the onerous and punitive requirements of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, or SORNA. However, even juveniles whose charges are dealt with as delinquent conduct in Family Court are subject to the same requirements, needlessly damaging their lives and rehabilitative efforts. To address this harmful practice, H 7197, introduced by Representative Robert Jacquard and supported by the ACLU, would severely limit the number of juveniles adjudicated in Family Court for sex offenses who would be required to register under SORNA.

Students Rights Bills

Funding for Field Trips (H 7043, H 7069, S 2327)Passed House, Sub B Passed out of Senate Committee

When a decision from the former-Commissioner of Education, supported by the ACLU, came out last April and affirmed guidelines for equity in the administration of public school field trips, it provoked considerable and extensive confusion and public attention. Even before this year’s legislative session began, it seemed inevitable that legislation to address this topic would swiftly move through the General Assembly.

As predicted, two pieces of legislation quickly introduced in the House of Representatives attempted to address the former-Commissioner’s decision by statutorily allowing for parental contributions towards the funding of school field trips. However, what the former Commissioner’s decision appropriately noted is that in order to ensure accessibility and equity for all students regarding these formative educational experiences, no student or parent can be required to provide payment for these trips or be forced into the stigmatizing position of asking for a fee waiver for financial reasons. We offered several amendments to these two pieces of legislation, H 7043 and H 7069, to ensure the essence of the Commissioner’s ruling remains intact. The House amended their legislation to reflect our concerns, and we supported the amended version which passed on the House floor.

The Senate additionally introduced legislation concerning field trips which we supported; we did, however, urge amendments to clarify the strictly voluntary nature of any requested donations. The Senate Committee on Education ultimately passed a Sub B version of H 7069 out of committee, and this bill will soon be on the floor of the Senate. 

Sunscreen in Schools (H 7123)Held For Further Study

Regulations promulgated by the Departments of Health and Education restrict students from self-administering over-the-counter medication, including important preventative care products such as sunscreen, on school campuses without “parental authorization.” Although we supported this legislation, introduced by Representative David Bennett, we pointed out the absurdity that a student who could bring and administer sunscreen under this bill still wouldn’t be able to utilize an ointment to treat a sunburn without this discretionary permission. We encouraged the committee to enact a more expansive piece of legislation to address this issue, such as H-7506, sponsored by Rep. Susan Donovan, which would allow older students the right to bring OTC medication to school.

Mental Health Personnel Funding (H 7171, Article 10)Held for Further Study

Article 10 of the proposed FY 2021 budget would extend the current reimbursement funding available for the hiring of school resource officers (SROs) to the hiring of mental health professionals by public schools. We have consistently opposed statutorily created financial incentives for the hiring of SROs over other, more critically needed personnel, and supported this budget Article because it would prioritize behavioral and mental support over more punitive disciplinary punishments.

School Discipline Reform (H 7439)Held for Further Study

Despite the passage of important legislation in 2016 which was intended to address the overzealous use of out-of-school suspensions in Rhode Island schools, the discipline data for many school districts continues to display alarming disparities for both students of color and students with disabilities, and shocking rates of suspension for the youngest students in grades K-5. In addition, not a single school district has submitted a statutorily required report to the Rhode Island Department of Education addressing their efforts to mitigate such disparities. We supported a critical piece of legislation, H 7439, introduced by Rep. Grace Diaz, which would largely eliminate the ability for a K-5 student to be given an out-of-school suspension and strengthen the current reporting requirements for school districts.

Over-the-Counter Medication in Schools (H 7506, S 2401)Held for Further Study

Introduced by Representative Susan Donovan and Senator Ana Quezada, H 7506 and S 2401, would allow high school students to bring over-the-counter medications for self-administration on school property. Current regulations require school authorization; in supporting the legislation, we argued that students shouldn’t need permission from a school nurse to bring Tums or Midol to school. 

School Computer Privacy (H 7509)Held for Further Study

In recent years, the distribution of computers to students in RI public schools for home use has become extremely commonplace, if not ubiquitous across districts. Unfortunately, as a study we conducted from two years ago showed, students have virtually no privacy protections on these computers, with some policies even allowing remote spying on students. H 7509, introduced by Rep. June Speakman, would implement comprehensive privacy requirements for such computers which would allow school officials to search devices only if they have reasonable suspicion to believe that the student has engaged in misconduct on the computer, and would prohibit remote access except in very limited circumstances. We strongly supported this legislation.

Recruitment of Teachers of Color (H 7292)Held for Further Study

Studies have well-documented the connection between having teachers of color in the classroom and high levels of achievement for minority student populations. We supported H 7292, introduced by Representative Karen Alzate, which would instruct the Commissioner of Education to develop strategies with the intent of bolstering the retention and recruitment of minority teachers and administrators in Rhode Island public schools. In our testimony, we specifically urged the consideration of policies which would bar teacher applicants from being disqualified from certification solely based on their performance on a standardized test, due to the noted gaps in passing rates between white test-takers and test-takers of color.

Voting Rights Bills

Legislative Redistricting (H 7260, S 2077)Held for Further Study

H 7260 and S 2077, introduced by Representative Jason Knight and Senator Dawn Euer, respectively, would establish an independent redistricting commission in order to ensure that Rhode Island’s legislative districts are not impacted by partisan gerrymandering. We supported this legislation, with some amendments, because such a commission would better ensure fairly proportioned districts, the ability for voters to choose their legislators – rather than the other way around – and provide a critical transparency to the redistricting process.

Prison Gerrymandering (H 7140)Held for Further Study

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 only from their home addresses. As a result, Cranston is overrepresented in the General Assembly, while the districts from where the prisoners hail are underrepresented (approximately 15% of House District 20 is comprised of voters who cannot vote in Cranston). The ACLU again supported this legislation, sponsored by Representative Anastasia Williams, to rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for redistricting purposes only, at their last known address.

Ballot Signature Requirements (H 7901 Sub A)Passed

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a need for emergency voting and electoral measures which balance public health and simultaneously ensure that voters and candidates are not disenfranchised. Although H 7901 Sub A attempts to do this by halving the ballot signature count which is required to run for federal office, this legislation does not adequately address the core concerns which this bill was created in response to. In our testimony, we noted that solely reducing the signature count -- and doing so for only two federal offices, and no state or local elections  -- does not minimize the risk that is taken by collecting signatures, as collection of any physical signature violates social distancing protocol and places individuals at risk of contracting the virus. We instead suggested that Rhode Island follow in the path of other states and enact a one-year-only modification which both reduces the signature requirement number and, critically, allows for electronic collection of signatures.

Voting Access (H 7200 A, H 7896, H 8102 A, S 2598 A)

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, voters could face significant health risks during the Rhode Island state primary in September and the general election in November if no alterations are made to our current voting process. In early July, in an attempt to address these concerns, several pieces of legislation – some good, some bad – were introduced in both chambers of the legislature. The ACLU of RI testified in conjunction with 15 other organizations on these pieces of legislation which are detailed below.

H 7200 A – This critical piece of legislation would make changes to the mail ballot process to mirror the conduct of the Presidential Preference Primary election in June by requiring the Secretary of State to automatically send mail ballot applications to all registered voters in Rhode Island for both the September state primary and the November general election, waiving the notary and two witness signature requirement for mail ballots, and requiring the installation of statewide drop boxes at which voters could submit their mail ballot. However, in light of the fact that nearly 3,000 ballots were not counted in the Presidential Preference Primary because they arrived by mail too late, we additionally proposed an amendment to the legislation which would include a three-day grace period for all ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted, even if they arrive late. The House passed this legislation but died in the Senate.  

H 7896  – We opposed this legislation due to serious deficiencies in the changes to the emergency mail ballot procedure which this bill proposed, including a voter ID requirement which is stricter than our current voter ID requirements and  an inappropriate shrinking of the time frame that a voter would have to cast their emergency mail ballot. The concerns we expressed about this legislation were addressed in H 8102 A.

H 8102 A – We supported this legislation because it provides a positive alternate process to those who wish to cast their emergency mail ballot prior to Election Day by allowing a voter to fill out their emergency mail ballot application on an electronic poll book and then cast a regular ballot which will be placed directly into the tabulator. This legislation has been signed by the Governor into law.

S 2598 A – While the original version of this bill would have limited ballot access for voters, these objections were satisfied by the Sub A version of the legislation. Similar to H 8102 A, this bill provides a positive alternate process to those who wish to cast their emergency mail ballot prior to Election Day by allowing a voter to fill out their emergency mail ballot application on an electronic poll book and then cast a regular ballot which will be placed directly into the tabulator. However, this legislation leaves in place the notary and two witness signature requirement for the submission of a mail ballot which could disenfranchise voters who live alone, are disabled, or are otherwise unable to fulfill these requirements. We encouraged amendments which would match the changes made in H 7200 A, which would waive these requirements and additionally provide a grace period for the receipt of mail ballots postmarked by Election Day. This bill has been signed by the Governor into law without the inclusion of our suggested amendments.

War on Drugs Bills

Decriminalization of Buprenorphine (S 2277)Held for Further Study

The possession of buprenorphine, a medically recognized treatment drug for substance abuse disorders, currently carries criminal penalties. We supported a piece of legislation which would exclude buprenorphine from the list of controlled substances for which possession can result in such penalties, ensuring that substance use disorders are treated by rehabilitative and supportive measures rather than as issues of criminal justice.

Workplace Rights Bills

Fair Employment Practices (H 7080, H 7226, S 2140)Held for Further Study

The ACLU supported two bills, H 7080 and H 7226, introduced by Representatives Camille Vella-Wilkinson and John Edwards, respectively, which would strengthen the Fair Employment Practices Act by making individual employee-supervisors, and not just the company employing them, subject to personal liability for their own acts of discrimination. This personal liability is particularly important for deterring sexual and other forms of harassment. H 7080 also positively revises the definition of employee to include elected officials, volunteers, and unpaid interns, and eliminates an archaic exemption for domestic workers.

Another bill that was recently heard and is designed to protect domestic workers – encompassing occupations such as housecleaners, nannies, and other caregiving positions – is H 7156, introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams and supported by the ACLU. It would include them as an employees for purposes of the state’s minimum wage laws.

We additionally supported S 2140, introduced by Senator Dawn Euer, which would prevent an employer from requiring an employee to sign a non-disclosure agreement as a requirement for employment.