Rhode Island Senate OKs Ban on Death-In-Prison Sentences for Children

Vote Reflects Nationwide Trend toward More Merciful Sentencing for Youth

(PROVIDENCE, RI) – In a 28-8 vote, the state Senate yesterday approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Harold M. Metts (D-Dist.6, Providence) to enable those serving lengthy sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles to be eligible for parole after serving 15 years, effectively eliminating life without parole for juvenile offenders and ensuring the state complies with recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The Holy Father Pope Francis has called life imprisonment “a hidden death penalty” and to not have mercy on these youth is to literally turn our backs on the very people about whom Jesus said, “let them come to me.”

“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 (D-Providence) 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.

Despite recent U.S. Supreme Court cases that require youth under 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 convicted in adult court. This bill (2017-S 0237A), which now goes to the House, is aimed at creating more nuanced parole laws that better reflect the differences between juvenile and adult offenders.

“Justice is not one-size-fits all. The Supreme Court has recognized that those who commit crimes as juveniles are not the same as adult offenders. Their minds are still developing, and yes, they can be rehabilitated,” said Senator Metts in a statement from his office. “This isn’t going to open the prison doors and set anyone free. It’s going to give our duly appointed and highly qualified Parole Board a chance to look at individual cases and determine whether someone who committed a serious crime as a child should still be in jail, or, whether he or she has truly rehabilitated and is deserving of a chance to be a part of society for the first time in their adult life.”

Major religious denominations around the country have called for an end to these death-in-prison sentences for children, including the United States 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.

This bill strikes a balance between creating hope and the possibility for redemption for children serving lengthy sentences while not guaranteeing them freedom. They still must convince the Parole Board that they have been rehabilitated. It also would not prohibit life sentences in the future for youth who commit serious crimes, but does allow them the chance to have parole hearings.

The bill was influenced by four U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the last 17 years grounded in adolescent development research, holding that children are “constitutionally different” from adults and should not be subject to the country’s harshest penalties. In the past five years, the number of states that ban life-without-parole sentences for children has nearly quadrupled to a total of 19 and the District of Columbia, including Texas, West Virginia and Arkansas.

Research by the Sentencing Project has also shown that most children who are serving life-without-parole sentences have suffered extreme trauma and abuse. More than 80 percent of kids serving life witnessed violence in their homes and neighborhoods on a regular basis. More than 50 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls were physically abused; more than 20 percent of boys and 77 percent of girls were sexually abused.

Rep. Christopher R. Blazejewski (D-Dist. 2, Providence) is sponsoring companion legislation (2017-H 5183) in the House.

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