Rhode Island Parole System Puts Innocent People In Jail
Rhode Island's Parole System is one of only three states that uses the lowest standard of proof for parole violation hearings
It makes parole violations so likely that innocent defendants make plea deals to avoid heavier sentences. The Rhode Island parole system, as currently configured, can and does put innocent people in jail. And many in power want to keep it that way. They cite it helps "judicial efficiency".
Example: The case of Jodi Johnson. In 1992, he pleaded no contest to robbery charges and was sentenced to 17 years, 7 to serve in the Adult Correctional Institutions and the remaining 10 suspended and on probation. In August 2004, he was arrested and charged with robbery in connection with a home invasion at an apartment on Douglas Avenue in Providence. The judge ruled the state presented enough evidence that Jodi Johnson failed to keep the peace and ordered Johnson to serve 9 of the 10 suspended years. In November 2006, Jodi Johnson was acquitted of the robbery charge in a jury trial. But he was still required to serve out his violation sentence.
According to the Rhode Island Parole System, one of the conditions of probation is that the individual keep the peace and be of good behavior. An arrest, to the system, is a sign that isn’t happening. Jodi Johnson’s arrest triggered a court hearing to determine whether he’d violated the terms of his probation and should be sent back to prison for some or all of the suspended sentence.
The challenge a probation-violation suspect faces is that the court need be only “reasonably satisfied” that he violated his parole. Nick Horton, a policy analyst with the nonprofit former-convict assistance organization OPENDOORS of Providence (formerly RI Family Life Center), said that is the standard courts use to decide whether to issue search or arrest warrants.
After a three-day hearing, the court ruled the state met the “reasonably satisfied” standard and ordered Jodi Johnson to serve 9 of the remaining 10 years. Johnson kept fighting the robbery charge, however, and in 2006 — in a criminal trial where the state had to meet the higher “beyond-a-reasonable-doubt” standard of proof — a Superior Court jury found him not guilty. But that did him no good in overturning the violation decision that sent him back to prison.
Jodi Johnson had been granted parole in January, and his supporters argue that that’s not fair; if the probationer is found not guilty, they say, he shouldn’t be punished for the arrest. But the law allows exactly that. In a state Supreme Court appeal of Jodi Johnson’s case, the court pointed out that a revocation hearing “does not call for the ‘full panoply of rights’ normally guaranteed defendants in criminal proceedings” and that “the state need not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant has violated his [or her] probation.” Some say that lesser standard of proof is creating an inferior standard of justice.
Prosecutors vehemently disagree. The probation-violation system enables them to target repeat offenders, they say, and it allows for plea agreements in cases that would otherwise choke an already-strained court system. Horton said a vast majority of other states use higher standards of proof in their probation-violation hearings. Had Johnson been in the Massachusetts system, the state would have had to prove its case to the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard. But like Rhode Island, even if he’d been found not guilty at a subsequent trial, he’d still have to serve the violation sentence. “Rhode Island is one of only three states, with South Dakota and Alabama, that uses the lowest standard of proof,” Horton said.
Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch said, "that’s a sign of mercy, not vengeance." Probation and suspended sentences give defendants a chance to avoid jail time, provided they keep the peace. From the prosecution table, he said, probation is a favor, a gift of liberty to someone who, if the courts had the resources, would be in jail. A study backed him up, finding that Rhode Island’s incarceration rate, 1 out of every 187 residents, ranked it 46th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Governor Carcieri is against changing the status quo stating, "when considering the wide range of defendants and the possible new crimes for which they might be arrested , judges and prosecutors needed the latitude the current system provides."