Edward Fitzpatrick: High Time to Address Rhode Island’s Probation Inflation

The Providence Journal

By Edward Fitzpatrick, Journal Columnist

Rhode Island has the nation’s third-highest probation rate. And in Providence, 1 out of every 11 men is on probation.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of prison sentences are for “low-severity crimes” (drug or property crimes, as opposed to violent or sex crimes). And unless something is done, the state prison population is expected to grow by 12 percent over the next decade.

“These numbers suggest that the time has arrived to look broadly and critically at the way Rhode Island deals with community corrections,” state Department of Corrections Director A.T. Wall said in an interview Friday.

Indeed, it is time (once again) for Rhode Island to take a hard look at its criminal justice system and to use hard data to determine what must change.

On July 7, Governor Raimondo issued an executive order creating the Justice Reinvestment Working Group. Led by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell and retired Superior Court Judge Judith Colenback Savage, the group must issue a report by Dec. 31 (in time for the 2016 legislative session), and it will be interesting to see what comes out of it.

Wall, a working group member, said, “I’m gratified the governor has taken on this issue and is approaching it with a view to examining the data and developing an evidence-based approach.”

Of course, it wasn’t too long ago that Rhode Island prisons were known for crowding and violence, rats and roaches. In 1977, then-Senior U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Pettine ruled that inmates were living in conditions that would “shock the conscience of any reasonable citizen.” His 100-page order required sweeping changes in how the state housed its criminals. And in 1994, the state and the ACLU signed an agreement ending the longest-running prison lawsuit in the United States.

The state undertook major construction projects to alleviate the crowding, Wall noted. But by 2000, when he became corrections director, the prison population was rising again. “It was heading in the direction of renewed overcrowding,” he said, “and given the costs associated, there was not much appetite to build all over again.”

Instead, the state worked with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to analyze what was driving up the prison population and to recommend ways to keep those numbers down without undermining public safety, Wall said.

The result was 2008 legislation that, among other things, allowed inmates to shave time off their sentences by completing programs (such as drug-treatment and mental-health programs) aimed at addressing what put them behind bars, he said. Since then, the state prison population has dropped by 19 percent and the recidivism rate has fallen, he said.

“We’ve made some important criminal justice reforms over the last decade,” Raimondo said in launching the working group. “But urgent work remains.”

So now the state is planning to once again work with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonprofit that has worked with the Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Department of Justice in 18 other states. Wall said funding will come from federal and foundation dollars, not state money.

The number crunchers will look at questions such as:

• Why does Rhode Island have the third-highest probation rate? Wall said one factor might be that the average Rhode Island probation term for felonies is 53 percent longer than the national average. And while many states impose sentences of either prison or probation, Rhode Island often adds probation to prison terms, he said.

“Having so many people on probation is a serious problem,” said Peter J. Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, based in Easthampton, Mass. “My understanding is Rhode Island gives very long probation sentences. That is part of the problem.”

Also, Wagner said having lots of unsupervised probationers can make it easier for people to end up in prison for probation violations, which have a lower standard of proof than criminal convictions, Wagner said. “That’s not about protecting public safety,” he said. “That is creating a circular bureaucracy.”

• Why do people awaiting trial now make up 25 percent of admissions to the Adult Correctional Institutions? “That number has greatly increased in recent years,” Wall said. “I don’t think anyone is in a position to know why.”

•  Why is only 8 percent ($15 million) of the corrections budget devoted to probation and parole if we have a whopping 23,000 people on probation? “It begs a lot of questions,” Wall said. “One is resource allocation, and also how risk is assessed.”

Wall said 69 caseload-carrying probation officers are now responsible for more than 23,000 probationers. “Those are daunting numbers,” he said. “They are working to triage those cases.”

Of those probationers, about 18,000 are in Rhode Island and about 9,000 of those are “banked” or inactively supervised, Wall said. “They don’t have to report,” he said, “but they are reactivated quickly if it comes to our attention that they are not complying with conditions or rearrested.”

• What are the demographics, including the racial makeup, of those in prison and on probation?

Raimondo’s executive order notes that “recent reports document troubling trends, including racial disparities in incarceration rates and arrests.”

The Prison Policy Initiative has reported racial disparities in Rhode Island’s prison population. Using 2010 Census data, it said blacks made up 6 percent of the state population but 30 percent of its incarcerated population, and Hispanics made up 12 percent of the state population but 24 percent of the incarcerated population. By contrast, whites made up 76 percent of the state population but 45 percent of the incarcerated population.

“We need to have all communities feel that justice is going to be fair,” said Jim Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Disparities do not help people have faith in the judiciary. It’s just a matter of fairness.”

Vincent, a member of the working group, said, “I think the governor is on the right path in taking this on. This should have happened before.”

So, once all the numbers are crunched and the questions are answered, what’s the overall goal? “Ensuring that our limited resources are focused on the offenders who pose the greatest risk,” Wall replied. “Developing effective approaches to reducing recidivism, improving the way we deal with mental illness and substance abuse, making the most effective use of taxpayer dollars, and ensuring that our system is fair.”

Oh, is that all? Those are certainly ambitious goals. Let’s get to it.