With three times as many Americans on probation or parole, rather than in prison, it should be understood that this is the the most important place to focus one’s efforts when looking at sentencing guidelines and the costs of prisons. Millions of people are being sent to prison under the very flimsy standards of probation systems (which vary widely from state to state), resulting in a mass of over-sentenced and, at times, innocent people in prison.
Last year Rhode Island amended their laws so that probationers whose new charges were subsequently dismissed would have their violations dismissed. Nobody except the affected could truly believe that people were serving prison time under such conditions, necessitating a four year campaign. This underscores the importance of having affected people (i.e. prisoners, former prisoners, and family members) at the table on these issues. Fortunately for Rhode Island, Direct Action for Rights & Equality (DARE) serves that purpose.
Tomorrow the RI Senate Judiciary Committee will hear two bills, one of which would limit probation violations to the time remaining on probation, instead of being able to give the full sentence on the final day, and potentially violating the legal maximum for the sentence. Read DARE’s report in support of that issue, and another innovative proposal to grant Good Time credits to all probationers and parolees. DARE has also prepared a History of the Probation Violation system in Rhode Island, as they continue efforts to educate people about what is really going on.
Considering that the typical “First Time Nonviolent Offender” becomes someone who is no longer eligible for deferment programs targeted at this group, policy makers and activists need to consider reforms that address all, not merely a slice off the top. The failure of Drug Courts, outlined in a pending report by Drug Policy Alliance, will emphasize this point clearly.
*Tomorrow will also mark the first hearing (also in the Senate Judiciary) on restoration of interest on prisoners’ accounts. A full report linking Keefe Commissary Network to financial chicanery in yet another prison is forthcoming. More on Keefe, the top commissary provider in the nation, and subject to numerous allegations, in a follow-up article.