On Thursday, May 30, the Rhode Island Senate approved modifications to the state’s “good time” statute – the bill now just needs to be signed by Governor Lincoln Chafee. One of the bill’s authors, Teresa Tanzi, submitted the following op-ed.
In light of last year’s release from prison of murderer Michael Woodmansee, it was clear that Rhode Island’s system of awarding time off to prisoners for good behavior was too generous to people who had committed very serious crimes.
After learning last year that Woodmansee would be released after serving just 28 years of a 50-year sentence, 40 to serve, for the heinous murder of 5-year-old Jason Foreman in 1975 (fortunately, he later agreed to remain in voluntary institutional confinement), I filed legislation on behalf of the attorney general that would have amended the “good time” law to prevent those convicted of crimes of violence from qualifying for it.
But the issue proved too complicated to reach consensus on so quickly, and instead I filed another bill, which passed, asking the state Criminal Justice Oversight Commission (CJOC) to study the issue and recommend reforms to the General Assembly.
The commission’s report suggested that the General Assembly work to balance the need to encourage prisoners to follow the rules and participate in rehabilitative programs with the rights of the public to be protected from dangerous criminals. A delicate balance, indeed.
Accordingly, I worked over the past year in conjunction with members of the CJOC to draft a bill to ban those convicted of the most serious offenses – murder, attempted murder, first-degree sexual assault, kidnapping of a minor and first- or second-degree child molestation – from earning time off their sentences unless they actively participate in their own rehabilitation.
Under the current system, merely existing in prison without incident earns a prisoner significant time off his or her sentence, as much as 10 days a month. That blanket policy was too generous and often resulted in a miscarriage of justice. When victims and their families are told the person who committed the crime against them will be locked away for a long time, they should have some reasonable assurance that they will not be let out as much as one-third earlier simply for not committing any new offenses while in prison.
Under my legislation, which passed the General Assembly with broad support, going forward the only way a serious offender (as described above) could earn time off his or her sentence would be by actively participating in rehabilitative programs, such as substance abuse or educational programs that teach useful life or career skills. Such programs deliver as much good for society as they do for inmates; by offering offenders opportunities to acquire “soft” skills they may otherwise lack, or career skills that will give them employment options when they are released, such programs reduce the probability they will turn again to crime. I firmly believe it is in society’s best interest to reasonably encourage inmates who are going to be released at some point to take advantage of those programs, since they better enable offenders to lead productive lives once released – and remember, the inmates this law will affect will all be released back into our communities at the end of their sentences.
What I believe to be reasonable is to entice prisoners to pursue correctional programs that directly correspond to becoming a useful citizen upon release, better prepared to engage with our world in a productive manner. Their time spent in the custody of our Department of Corrections can help do this. What is not reasonable is the status quo: a system in which a prisoner serving time for a heinous crime can do absolutely nothing to rehabilitate himself or herself, and still be disproportionately rewarded for their “good behavior” with a significant sentence reduction.
For the families whose lives have been torn apart by violent acts perpetrated against their loved ones, I am grateful for the courage they showed through this long and awful process. In particular, I want to acknowledge the strength, perseverance and grace of the Foremans, the Shermans and the Wilmots who relentlessly channeled their pain and suffering into momentum for needed reform to a flawed system so inmates will no longer be rewarded with early release for doing nothing at all. It was their tireless efforts that rallied the support and kept the pressure on the General Assembly to pass this bill. Though it will not do a thing to change the sentences in their cases, they continued to fight for future victims and families they may never know. I hope this brief moment of victory will help transform their suffering into a legacy of which they can all be proud.
Rep. Teresa Tanzi represents District 34 in South Kingstown and Narragansett. The first-term Democrat is the sponsor of the “good time” bill, which passed the General Assembly May 30.