At the conclusion of its 2008 session, the General Assembly passed a bill that would have reformed state criminal justice procedure for probationers charged with new crimes. The current law imposes lengthy prison sentences for such people even if their new charges are dismissed or if they are found innocent.
A precondition for state inmates' release to probation is their promise to "preserve the peace and be of good behavior." The mere accusation or suspicion of a new offense, therefore, is enough for the judge at a violation hearing — which occurs before the trial for a new charge — to send an individual back to the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) for the length of their original sentence.
"They can violate you in this state for doing practically nothing" says Phil Jackson, "I'm a perfect example: I'm doing seven years [at the ACI]; my charge was dismissed."
In Rhode Island, as in most states, the standard of proof at a violation hearing is significantly lower than that in a criminal trial. While criminal juries must find an individual guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt," judges at violation hearings need only be "reasonably satisfied" that an individual violated the terms of their probation.
State Representative David Segal (D-Providence) says this practice, which causes the incarceration of innocent people, is "contrary to most peoples' innate sense of justice." Governor Carcieri, however, vetoed the bill, declaring that it is the nature of probation that probationers may be re-incarcerated without being found guilty.
Next week, the Rhode Island Family Life Center for Ex-Offenders (RIFLC) will screen a documentary, Stronger Than Their Walls: Guilty Though Proven Innocent, which chronicles the stories of several men incarcerated on charges for which they were never actually convicted, as well as the experiences of their wives, children, and communities.
One such story is that of Richard Beverly, who had served five years of his seven-and-a-half year probation sentence when he was named an accomplice in a breaking and entering charge. Beverly was violated and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years at the ACI. When his new charge went to trial, 18 months into Beverly's incarceration, 911 tapes revealed that he had not been present at the scene of the crime. His violation stood, however, and he spent three years at the ACI for a crime he did not commit before becoming eligible for parole.
The documentary, which was produced, directed, edited, and shot by RIFLC's Nick Horton along with Julia Liu, Jon Mahone, and Keith Heyward, will be screened on Tuesday, December 9 at 6 pm at the Family Life Center (841 Broad St, Providence) and at 7:30 pm at the Mount Hope Neighborhood Association (199 Camp St, Providence), and on December 18 at 7 pm at Providence Black Rep, 276 Westminster St.
Policy advocates at the Family Life Center hope the documentary will prompt dialogue about probation law in Rhode Island. The organization's director, Sol Rodriguez, explains, "We got involved in this issue because people kept bringing it to our attention. No one should go to prison for a crime they didn't commit, it's as simple as that."
For more information, visit strongerthantheirwalls.com.