PROVIDENCE - The Foremans accomplished one more hurdle in their fight to reform Rhode Island’s good time law when the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the “good time bill” introduced by Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski last week.
The revised version of the good time bill introduced last year would make it impossible for anyone serving one or multiple terms for murder, kidnapping of a minor, first degree sexual assault, or first or second degree child molestation from being eligible for a reduced sentence by earning good time credits. If the bill becomes law, the act would take effect on July 1, 2012 and would only apply to prisoners’ good time credits awarded after that date.
After John Foreman (the surviving brother of Jason Foreman who was murdered and cannibalized in 1975) and his wife Melanie pleaded for the bill’s passage, the committee approved the bill in an initial 7-to-1 vote with Sen. Mary Ellen Goodwin voting for the bill after the fact. Sen. Rhonda Perry, D-Providence cast the single dissenting vote. The bill now moves onto the Senate floor this week and to the House side on Wednesday, Feb. 8 to face the same House Judiciary Committee that stopped its passage last year. Like last year, Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D- Narragansett, South Kingstown) introduced the bill to the House of Representatives.
It has been an ongoing fight for the Foreman family to have the current law that permits prisoners to be released early for good behavior changed after news broke last March that the convicted killer of their son Jason Foreman would be released 12 years early. In 1982, the Foremans discovered Michael Woodmansee had slain and kept the shellacked remains of five year old, Jason of South Kingstown seven years earlier when he went missing and broke the hearts of quiet Peace Dale. The news of Woodmansee’s early release after serving only 28 years of a 40 year prison sentence galvanized the South Kingstown community to keep Woodmansee behind bars. When he was finally released in October, Woodmansee agreed to commit himself to Eleanor Slater Hospital in Cranston, the state mental institution.
After the incident, state lawmakers began to examine the law that gave one heinous criminal a get out of jail free card. This week’s good time bill is the second attempt by South Kingstown Senator Sosnowski and Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin to address the current law after last year’s bill did not pass the House Judiciary Committee.
“Now we have the senate bill before us again,” Sosnowski said. “We have an obligation to continue to look at laws designed to protect our community. Although it won’t erase what happened to the [Foreman family] I do hope its passage will bring some peace to the Foreman family and the South Kingstown community knowing another convicted criminal won’t be released early for good time off.”
On Thursday evening, John and Melanie Foreman spoke once again of the need to reform Rhode Island’s good time law in front of the Senate Judiciary committee.
“What happened with us represents every mother’s worst nightmare. To think it can keep happening to other victims,” Melanie Foreman said. “We appreciate you taking this into consideration. We have to be forward thinkers.”
“After all the years of everything that happened with our family this is a good way for us to show that we would like to give back to the public for all the work done for us to keep fighting to get the bill passed to prevent any future inmates from getting out after committing horrendous acts,” John Foreman said.
In support of the reform, the Foremans created an online petition with over 1,000 signatures.
The main concern for last year’s bill when it stalled in the House Judiciary Committee was the high cost, $12.2 million that the state would incur to keep the 500 affected prisoners for their full sentences. Rather than pass the bill, the House referred it to the Criminal Justice Oversight Committee to review and provide a recommendation. After meeting on Monday, the CJOC is set to give its recommendation on Wednesday, Feb. 28 after an extension was granted earlier this month.
Those pushing for the bill’s passage are more optimistic this year after Thursday’s approval.
“It’s been around now. This is the second time the Senate Judiciary passed the bill. I feel more optimistic,” Sosnowski said.
“Last year we put in a very comprehensive piece of legislation. It was a lot for people to digest. What we did today is very simple and straightforward,” Kilmartin said.
Though the bill comes before the CJOC can provide their recommendation, Kilmartin said, “I’m still pursuing this in the legislative forum regardless. It belongs with the legislature.”
Although the bill was approved it was not an easy fight after concerns were raised that the bill may face court challenges on its constitutionality.
Kilmartin stated his office has vetted the bill and found it stands on solid constitutional grounds, but Michael DeLauro, legislative director for the public defender’s office and Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the ACLU said the proposed “ex post facto law” would never stand up in court. Brown and DeLauro both cited a 1981 Florida case, Weaver v. Graham in which the Florida Supreme Court struck down a revision to that state’s “gain time” law similar to the proposed Rhode Island “good time law” on the merit that it was unconstitutional. Brown argued that the bill was retroactive in taking away from prisoners the ability to accrue good time they were once promised.
“These are statutory in nature. It is not a constitutional right. We’re not removing any credits already accumulated. Going forward they would not be able to accumulate more. That’s an important distinction,” Kilmartin countered.
A.T. Wall, Director of the Department of Corrections did, however, state that “with regard to retroactivity, our lawyers have raised the same concerns as the ACLU and the public defender’s office.”
David Mellon, the president of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers stated the overly generous law needs revision and that as it stands now it amounts to a “get out of jail free card.”
DiLauro argued that a case like Woodmansee’s should not be the driving force behind public policy after the good time statue was just revised in 2008 after going unchanged for 48 years prior. Much of the senators disagreed.
Senator Walaska (D-Warwick) said “the reason we’re here is that a villain like Michael Woodmansee could potentially be released. Isn’t it current events that drive public policy?”
Although the financial cost of the law was the main stopping point last year for the House Judiciary Committee, this year and last year the senate side saw protection of the community as more vital.
“As far as a costs factor, some things are worth the costs,” Senator Shibley (R-Warwick, Coventry) said.