PROVIDENCE – For the second time the House Judiciary Committee has stalled on reforming Rhode Island’s good time law.
In an overflowing hearing room at the State House Wednesday night, where opponents of the bill feared its unconstitutionality and victims of heinous criminals pleaded for the bill’s passage, the nine present representatives on the committee decided to hold their vote for further study until April 2 when the Criminal Justice Oversight Commission has their say on the bill to reform good time law in Rhode Island.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-Narragansett, South Kingstown) on behalf of Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin would make those convicted of the most egregious crimes, including 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.
The House side’s decision comes one night after the full Senate successfully passed the identical bill for the second year in a row introduced by Sen. Susan Sosnowski (D-South Kingstown, New Shoreham).
Wednesday evening’s hearing seemed to be last year played back on rewind.
Last year after news spread that convicted child killer Michael Woodmansee would be released 12 years early for time off received for good behavior after serving only 28 years of a 40 year prison sentence, law makers drafted bills to reform Rhode Island’s good time law. Woodmansee was convicted in 1982 of killing and cannibalizing South Kingstown’s five year old Jason Foreman in 1972 and attempting to strangle a second boy, Dale Sherman seven years later while both were on their way home from playing in their Peace Dale neighborhood. In the end, Woodmansee agreed to voluntarily confinement in the state mental institution last fall at Eleanor Slater Hospital in Cranston.
Although last year’s more comprehensive bill passed easily on the senate side, it met resistance by the House Judiciary Committee, who referred it to a six month study by the Criminal Justice Oversight Commission, a body made up all interested parties in the criminal justice field. Once again, the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday night deferred to the CJOC.
“My point is having asked them to look at this, it is if nothing but politeness to wait for their response,” Rep. Edith Ajello, (D-Providence), Chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
Despite the committee motioning to extend the bill for further study at the start of the meeting, victims of the worst crimes spoke out in favor of the bill’s passage, hoping that the committee would remember their words when they make their final decision.
“[Woodmansee] got out on a 40 year sentence. He only had to serve 28 years. It should be that you get 10 you do 10 especially for killing someone. You don’t have to live with it. The victim does,” John Foreman, 43 year old surviving brother of Jason Foreman and the last person ever to see his brother alive said. “We’ve been there and back as a family. You don’t understand what happens when you get a news reporter on your doorstep that says ‘you know Michael Woodmansee is getting out?’”
“Let’s give people that deserve it their actual sentence and stop with the plea bargaining and back room talk. It’s not right. You get 40 years. You do 40 years,” he continued.
“All we’re asking for is the truth for honesty sake, consider the fact that giving predators, the ones who prey on the most innocent children, these are the folks we’re asking to take away the automatic 10 days off,” Melanie Foreman, wife of John Foreman and cousin of Dale Sherman said. “If an inmate is in protected custody like Michael Woodmansee, there is nothing they can do to misbehave besides flush a razor down the toilet.”
Another family, whose daughter, Andrea Wilmont was attacked and stabbed 20 times last July by a coworker who followed her home leaving her with spinal cord damage advocated for the bill’s passage, but pleaded the committee to add the offense of attempted murder to the list of ineligible crimes.
“Had this man not been interrupted in his attack of Andrea, he’d fall under this amendment. Why should he be able to take advantage of good time when he was just not able to finish the job,” Elizabeth Shealey, lawyer for the Wilmont family said.
The Foremans doubted whether the CJOC could even provide a sufficient recommendation.
“Last year we sat before you with a broader bill. You stalled last year too. The CJOC all they do is bicker. Every community member has their own agenda. I’d be interested to see if they make a decision on time since they missed the last one. We’ll see if they actually come through this time,” Melanie Foreman said.
The bill did not go without opposition, however.
Director of the Department of Corrections A.T. Wall and Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Steven Brown both stated the bill would face constitutional battles in courts from the 500 inmates who were promised to receive good time credits during their initial sentencing. Like last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing, Brown cited a 1981 case Reeves v. Graham that struck down a similar bill in Florida.
The attorney general anticipated arguments against the good time bill.
Brown argues that the bill is retroactive, but Kilmartin states that the bill will pass constitutional muster since it does not take away credits already earned.
“The statues they were referring to was a shall. Our statue as it currently exists makes it discretionary. That’s an important distinction,” Kilmartin said. “This is about the worst crimes in the state and how we choose as a state to deal with those convicted of the most heinous crimes. It’s not violating anyone’s rights because it’s not a guarantee of a reduced sentence.”
Robert Langdon, Vice President of the Union for Correctional Officers, said “correctional officers are not against good time. We’re against how liberal good time is today. This is a good step forward. We don’t need incentive of good time to maintain appropriate levels of good behavior.”
Rep. Dorreen Costa (R-North Kingstown) had already made of her mind.
“You have my 100 percent support on this bill. Let those predators and monsters stay right where they are,” Costa said to the Foremans and Wilmonts.