Senate passes bill to end 'death-in-prison' sentences for convicted youth


PROVIDENCE — By its 28-8 vote on June 15 the Rhode Island Senate finally gave Sen. Harold Metts (D-District 6, Providence) its validation of a bill he has for the last couple of years tried to pass into law which would ban in Rhode Island death-in-prison sentences for children convicted of serious crimes.

The legislation would allow those serving lengthy or life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles to be eligible for parole after serving 15 years. It would also ensure the state complies with recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that require youth under the age of 18 to be treated differently than adults for the purposes of criminal sentencing.

Under current Rhode Island law, there is no distinction between adults over 18 and those juveniles under 18 who are convicted in adult court.

Metts’ Bill (2017-S 0237A) is designed to create parole laws that allow for a more nuanced distinction between juvenile and adult offenders.

“This is the first time it saw the light of day. I feel good about it,” Metts said of the Senate’s passage of his bill.

Metts had the support of Roberta Richmond, the longtime warden of the state’s women’s division prison, as well as the chairperson of the state parole board.

Despite opposition from Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, Metts said he was pleased that in advocating for his bill he was able to overcome the “fear factor” that some opponents had tried to instill among legislators.

Some had brought up the case — one which Metts calls a “very extreme case” — of Craig Price, who was convicted as a juvenile for the brutal serial murders of four neighbors in Warwick between 1987-1989.

“We had to get past that to let people know it had nothing to do with Craig Price,” said Metts, noting that his legislation wasn’t designed for those convicted of such heinous crimes. “That’s a very extreme case and you can’t paint everybody with a broad brush.”

“Whoever belongs in jail, they need to keep them there,” he said. “There are some people who deserve a second chance and that’s what this legislation is all about.”

Metts’ bill is about offering hope to someone who committed a crime but whose mind was not yet fully developed to comprehend what they were doing. It provides for a case to be reviewed for parole, but offers no guarantee that someone will be released from their prison sentence.

“It’s about repentance and reconciliation and restoring hope to a person,” he said. “It doesn’t’ mean that anyone is going to be set free.”

With the Holy Father Pope Francis calling life imprisonment a “hidden death penalty,” noting how contrary to Jesus’ call for mercy it is for the justice system to turn its back on the very people he welcomed into salvation in his arms, the Rhode Island Catholic Conference applauded the Senate’s courageous stance on the bill.

“As a Catholic priest, I understand what is lost when someone takes a life,” said Very Reverend Bernard Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference. “It sends pain ripping through families who’ve lost a loved one, and robs the entire community of its innocence. Yet, my faith compels me to insist not only on accountability and justice for those who cause such grave harm, but to also work for mercy and forgiveness. I am most grateful to Senator Harold Metts for sponsoring this bill and for the Senate leadership for their support. I hope that the House of Representatives will soon take up the bill and pass it this session,” said Father Healey.

Father Healey noted that major religious denominations around the country have called for an end to such death-in-prison sentences for children, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Jesuit Conference, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Bahais of the United States.

Metts’ bill, he said, strikes a balance between creating hope and the possibility for redemption for children serving lengthy sentences while not guaranteeing them freedom. It would also not prohibit the state’s courts from handing down life sentences in the future for youth who commit serious crimes, but it would allow them to be granted a parole hearing at the appointed time.

Sen. Frank Lombardi (D-District 26, Cranston), has been a strong advocate for Metts’ bill.

An attorney, Lombardi said he knew that on the Senate floor there would be some resistance to such a bill given the “fear factor,” so he researched how U.S. Supreme Court decisions over the last 17 years have been grounded in the progression of adolescent development, recognizing that children are indeed different from adults and they should not be treated as the same in the court system.

“There were several U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have acknowledged that the mindset of a child or juvenile is not fully developed at least until 25, so there’s a recognition that their ability to account for their actions is not fully developed into their adulthood,” Lombardi said.

He said that the parole board would be looking very closely at the behavior of a child or juvenile offender that would one day come before them to determine whether or not they’ve taken the necessary steps during their incarceration so that they may rejoin society.

“We’re giving the parole board the opportunity to look at these cases and make sure that a child is not condemned to a lifetime of imprisonment,” Lombardi said.

“If a kid has shown an ability to rehabilitate themselves after whatever period of time there is, we’re not lowering the standards or lessening the bar to freedom, we’re just recognizing that children should be treated differently.”

Nikola Nable-Juris, policy counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth traveled to Rhode Island to offer the organization’s support for the passage of legislation that would ban death-in-prison sentences for children convicted of serious crimes.

“Giving youth a second look is really important for their rehabilitation and for their own motivation to grow and change and grow into the people we know they can become,” she said in a sit-down interview with Rhode Island Catholic.

Nable-Juris said it is very important for people to understand that this legislation does not guarantee that anyone will be released at a given point.

“This bill doesn’t say that individuals under 18 have to get out of prison at a certain time. It just says that they need to go before the parole board to get reviewed,” she said.

And it doesn’t apply to those who have committed adult offenses while they have been in prison.

What a parole board would be most interested in learning when reviewing a lengthy sentence after 15 years is what the person has done with their life in the time they have been incarcerated.

“Have they expressed remorse for their crime? Have they sought training to rehabilitate themselves? Who have they become since they went into prison?” Nable-Juris said.

If the companion bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. Chris Blazejewski (D-District 2-Providence), passes and is signed into law, the legislation would bring Rhode Island into line with its neighbors in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont in effectively eliminating life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders. Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia provide review of sentences for all children incarcerated and four additional states: New York, New Jersey, Florida and California provide for a review in most cases.