PROVIDENCE – When news broke that convicted child killer Michael Woodmansee would be released 12 years early due to good behavior, his release sparked a debate on whether Rhode Island’s current good time law should be examined.
The result of that debate, a six month study of the current system by the Criminal Justice Oversight Committee (CJOC) is underway after the committee held its first meeting Monday morning to review the good time credit for Rhode Island prisoners before making a final recommendation in January.
The review by the CJOC was the compromise between lawmakers wanting to amend the good time law. In May, at the bequest of Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, Sen. Susan V. Sosnowski and Rep. Teresa Tanzi submitted a bill that would prohibit certain offenses from being eligible for time off for good behavior, including murder, kidnapping of a minor, first-degree sexual assault and first- or second-degree child molestation. The bill passed the senate, but due to the large price tag attached, $50,000 for 2012, the House did not consider the bill.
Instead, the General Assembly approved a bill that would have the CJOC review the current system and provide a recommendation by January.
Proposals to amend the current good time law came after news that child killer Michael Woodmansee received 12 years off a 40-year prison sentence for good behavior and would be released this past August. Woodmansee was convicted in 1982 of killing South Kingstown’s Jason Foreman in 1975 and kidnapping a second boy, Dale Sherman in 1982. Woodmansee agreed to voluntary commitment to a mental institution, the Eleanor Slater Hospital in Cranston.
The Foreman family has been instrumental in pushing for reform of the good time law. After Kilmartin’s original bill was not passed, the family continued their push for change, starting a petition, called Jason’s Law Petition at www.foremansappliance.com/jason-s-law-petition  with already a few 1,000 signatures.
“I hope they take the petition as a public outcry for law change. We want to change the law regarding how rapists, murderers, child molesters and the worst of the worst so they don't get good time off their sentence. If they're told their serving 50 years, they're doing 50 years. When they're told they're serving 20 years, they are doing actually 20 years. Unlike Michael Woodmansee who got 12 years off a 40 year prison sentence,” John Foreman, father of Jason Foreman said.
At Monday’s CJOC meeting, the commission, made up of the Director of the Department of Corrections, the attorney general, the presiding justice of the superior court, the public defender, the superintendent of the state police, the chairperson of the parole board and four members of the General Assembly, discussed the origins of the law, where it is today and how it compares nationally.
“We should make sure that they are earning this time off for actively participating and improving themselves and not merely for not breaking a rule,” Tanzi said. “We have to do our best. We owe it so society to make sure these people become productive members of society.”
Rhode Island enacted its good time law first in 1872. A major change occurred in 1960 that increased the award of good time from a maximum of five days per month to a maximum of 10 days per month based on the number of years in an inmate’s sentence.
The next major change came in 2008 to equalize good time amounts for shorter term offenders and add incentive for inmates to participate in programs. Since 2008 inmates serving less than 10 years earn 10 days per month of good behavior time, with the exception of sex offenders and those serving life. Good time for inmates serving 10 years or more, serving Life, or serving as a sex offender remain unchanged since 1960.
As the good time law stands today, a sex offender serving six months or more can receive the number of days each month as there are years in sentence up to a maximum of 10 days per month for good behavior with no disciplinary infraction. Lifers receive no good behavior time and all other offenders serving more than one month can receive 10 days a month.
For those offenders participating in programs, sex offenders serving one year or more can receive up to three days a month to a maximum of 36 days a year, lifers receive no good time off and everyone else serving more than a month can receive up to five days a month. The number of days coincides with rehabilitative value of the program and the offender’s level of performance in the program.
Currently, for those receiving credit for performing work assignments, sex offenders serving more than a month can get up to two days a month, lifers receive no good time off and everyone else serving more than one month can get up to two days a month off.
Lastly, for prisoners who get meritorious credit, sex offenders serving a year or more can get up to three days, maximum 36 days a year, including any time already credited under this section for programs. Lifers receive no time off again and all other crimes serving more than one month receive no time as well.
Based on a 2010 national survey, Rhode Island is in the moderate range in providing sentence reduction incentives to incarcerated offenders. The population in Rhode Island prisons has also steadily decreased by 16 percent from FY 2008 to FY 2012.
The CJOC originated in 1994 after the state settled the 20 year overcrowding and conditions lawsuit with the National Prison Project of the ACLU. The settlement agreement contained population capacities and the enforcement mechanism. Legislation enacted the previous year created this committee.
The Committee is charged with ensuring the population capacities are maintained. The committee will initiate action when the overall population exceeds 95 percent of federal capacity for 30 consecutive days or the population exceeds 100 percent of federal capacity in any secure facility for five consecutive days.
The CJOC will meet at least one more time before making recommendations to the General Assembly in January. The meeting date is to be determined.