Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Need to Amend the Time Off For Good Behavior Statute

The early release of Michael Woodmansee, the man convicted of the murder of five-year old Jason Foreman and the attempted murder of Dale Sherman, from prison 12 years earlier than the originally imposed sentence, has put a spotlight on the state’s good behavior statute.

The time off for good behavior statute for those who commit egregious crimes was enacted in an era when we believed our communities were safe from murderers and predators.  As a state and a community, we have an obligation to continually look at the laws that are designed to protect our communities to ensure that they remain relevant in an ever changing society. 

The Office of the Attorney General conducted an intensive review of the good behavior statute and how it relates to today’s criminal justice system.  We evaluated what, if any, changes should be made to the statute.
I believe that we have crafted a comprehensive and Constitutional legislative proposal that, if enacted, would create a significant and necessary shift in public policy, while at the same time create a more equitable balance between the public safety needs of Rhode Islanders, the rehabilitative needs of prison inmates and the operational needs of the Department of Corrections, and it will go a long way in helping to ensure our neighborhoods are safe and secure.

First, the proposal recognizes that individuals sentenced to the most egregious crimes would pose a threat to public safety and therefore would become ineligible for good behavior credits.  Those convicted and sentenced for the following crimes would fall under this category:

o   Murder;
o   Kidnapping of a minor;
o   1st degree sexual assault;
o   2nd degree sexual assault;
o   3rd degree sexual assault;
o   1st degree child molestation;
o   2nd degree child molestation;
o   Child pornography; and
o   1st degree child abuse.

Anyone currently serving a sentence for one of these enumerated crimes would be entitled to the credits they have earned, but after the effective date of the act could no longer accrue good behavior credits.  Anyone convicted of these crimes after the effective date of the act, would never be eligible for good behavior credits or for credits currently given for participation and completion of educational and other programs.

These inmates still have an incentive to maintain good behavior while incarcerated, as the parole board would still review their conduct in determining parole eligibility.

The next major public policy change is that good behavior credits earned after passage of the act would not reduce the actual sentence imposed by a judge, as is now the case.  Instead, the credits would allow for early release of the inmate, but under community supervision.  Therefore, unlike the current system, if a convict commits a violation while out on early release on community supervision, after a hearing, they can be sent back to the ACI to fulfill the terms of the original judicially imposed sentence.

By creating this system, we are not only encouraging the inmate to behave and work toward rehabilitation thereby earning credits while incarcerated, but we are also providing the incentive to behave when back in society or else go back to prison.

The bill also gives Corrections the ability to award good behavior credit days based on the circumstances surrounding the individual incarcerated inmate.  For instance, the current system is not fair in that an inmate in general population who may be more susceptible to an infraction, yet still stays out of trouble, gets the same 10 days of good behavior credit as the inmate who is more isolated from the general population and less likely to commit an infraction.  The new system is more equitable because it would allow the director to award up to 10 days good behavior credit based on individual circumstances, not the current mandatory 10 days for everyone who is program eligible.

While this legislation will do nothing to erase the tragedy that gripped a community for more than seven years, it will hopefully bring a sense of justice and peace to the Foreman and Sherman families and the community knowing that another child murderer will not be allowed time off for good behavior.