RI changes drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors

Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee enacted a bill on Sept. 28 that reduces the cost of possession for personal use of certain controlled substances, from felonies to misdemeanors. The new law applies to amounts of 10 grams or less and includes fentanyl, heroin and cocaine.

Attorney General Peter Neronha has said he sees misdemeanor charges less as punishment and more as a means of getting people with substance use disorders into treatment. The new law provides for a maximum sentence of two years in prison, which is double the one-year maximum for most offenses. But Neronha clarified that the logic behind this is not to extend prison terms. “The maximum sentence often defines how long the court can monitor someone,” he said.

He added that public health experts consider two years of supervision to be “more appropriate”, given that most people need more than a year to complete treatment for substance use disorders. .

According to Neronha’s own research, of the 400 or 500 cases of personal use offenses involving fentanyl over a five-year period, only one to three people were sentenced to prison, and none of those sentences has exceeded about 30 days.

“If you were to face the consequences of a felony conviction, it should be something serious enough to warrant criminal treatment,” Neronha said. “These cases simply did not warrant criminal conduct.”

State Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick), who introduced the bill, said a treatment-based approach is more cost effective than criminalization because Rhode Island spends about $ 100,000 a year to incarcerate a person.

Associate Professor of Epidemiology Brandon Marshall hailed the law as “a step towards addressing racial (and) ethnic inequalities in our criminal justice and public health systems,” noting that people of color are being arrested and incarcerated more frequently for drug-related offenses and receive harsher penalties. than the whites.

Haley McKee is the co-chair and co-founder of the Substance Use Policy, Education and Recovery PAC, which drafted and lobbied for the original version of this legislation. She said 658 of the 1,111 arrests for simple drug possession in Rhode Island in 2019 were people of color. She added that this happened despite the state’s predominantly white makeup and similar drug use rates among whites and people of color.

Neronha added that the law helps her office – which is made up of 70 lawyers charged with prosecuting between 8,000 and 9,000 pending criminal cases “at any given time” – to focus on “the most important cases”, such as those of drug trafficking, violent crimes and public corruption, rather than petty charges of personal possession.

The weight of a crime

The consequences of a felony conviction are personal for Project Weber / RENEW’s Overdose Prevention Program Director Dennis Bailer, who was convicted of a felony for drug possession before the bill was passed.

When police discovered $ 40 worth of cocaine while investigating his vehicle during a traffic stop, Bailer – who suffered from substance use disorders at the time – was charged with a felony . Although he was confined to the police station “for a weekend”, Bailer said the prosecution continued to follow him even after he requested treatment, leading to rejection of housing applications. and employment.

According to Haley McKee, Bailer’s story is not unique, as felony convictions often deprive people of the “holy trinity” of “housing, jobs and education.” She added that crimes are less stigmatizing than crimes and therefore do not pose the same threat to people’s ability to “participate fully in society”.

Bailer also said crimes result in fees, fines and court appearances that can further trap low-income people in the criminal justice system.

“The charge is really not equal to the crime,” he said. Bailer, who testified in legislative hearings while the bill was under consideration, added that the excessive criminalization of personal possession charges “is of no use in practice.”

RIPCA, recharging resellers

Receive The Herald delivered to your inbox daily.

The legislation was passed with strong bipartisan support in both the State House and the Senate. But Haley McKee said that only happened more than two years after the original version of the bill was introduced, which set maximum possession before a more serious charge at 28 grams. While she said the bill had “overwhelming support from all in power,” the “hugely contradictory” lobbying efforts of the Rhode Island Association of Chiefs of Police precluded the original bill to leave the committee in 2019. The law was passed after Neronha re-introduced the bill in another legislative session with a more modest maximum of 10 grams.

RIPCA executive director Sid Wordell said his organization opposed the drug reclassification law. He pointed out that RIPCA always supports minimizing the harmful effects of crimes by improving sentenced persons’ access to housing and employment, facilitating deregistration and using the current powers of the Attorney General to divert cases so that individuals can attend treatment programs instead of receiving felony convictions.

“But that said, 10 grams of (drugs like) fentanyl, not to mention carfentanil, can kill hundreds of people,” Wordell said. “There was no way we could support this. “

Neronha acknowledged the dangers of fentanyl but argued that the law “does nothing to protect people who sell fentanyl”. He pointed out that although the law reclassifies possession for personal use of 10 grams or less as a misdemeanor, it still treats possession of any quantity with the intent to sell as a felony.

Despite this, Wordell said a person in possession of 10 grams of fentanyl “is clearly dealing in drugs”, and the new law would make it more difficult for law enforcement to charge that person with a crime. in the absence of other information that specifically links the individual with a clear intention to treat.

Although he acknowledged that the Attorney General’s office has been able to charge people found with up to 10 grams of trafficking since the change in law, Wordell said he will have to “wait and see if things go wrong. work “.

Marshall, the professor of epidemiology, is less concerned with the potentially reduced ability to prosecute traffickers than with the problems that result from the focus on prosecuting traffickers.

He said that while he understands why people may be inclined to blame the overdose deaths on the person who supplied the substance, traffickers and lower level dealers “often consume themselves or have related disorders. to the use of substances “. Moreover, he believes that this focus will not effectively tackle drug abuse among the population, as even high level traffickers are “very quickly” replaced every time they are caught.

Bailer confirmed that the lines between user and dealer are blurred, as many people work as intermediaries to support their own drug use. While he acknowledges that law enforcement efforts should focus on “the real mid-level dealers,” he cautioned that special attention should be paid to ensuring that “the people who are in the street and just trying to survive ”are not mistakenly labeled as dealers.

The future of drug policy

Haley McKee hopes the consequences of this law will be comparable to those seen in Connecticut, which passed similar defelonization laws in 2015 and then recorded “tax savings of about $ 12.7 million per year in costs. correction ”, no increase in crime and one overdose death per capita. lower rate than Rhode Island.

Due to the support she has received from the Governor and Attorney General, McKee believes Rhode Island is “ideally placed” to build on the state’s previous progress in drug decriminalization and overdose prevention. , such as the endorsement of the country’s first harm reduction center, where individuals can use drugs safely under professional supervision. She hopes the state will expand the defelonization of personal use possession to the initially proposed maximum of 28 grams and ultimately achieve the goal of full decriminalization.

Instead of moving towards more legalization or decriminalization, Wordell believes the state should focus first on improving the availability of drug treatment services. Since the distribution of grants for recovery programs is concentrated in the most densely populated areas of the state, he said that many residents of Rhode Island with substance use disorders who live outside of these areas do not have uninterrupted access to resources for their substance abuse problems. He added that insufficient availability of resources makes it difficult for police to transfer people with substance use disorders to a treatment provider.

Wordell said the state should allocate more money in proposed budgets for drug addiction programs and law enforcement.

Marshall said the solution to the drug addiction epidemic lies in a “compassionate approach” that expands voluntary access to treatment and strengthens the current harm reduction system, adding that the drug reclassification law is “a very good first step “.

Neronha hopes the law will allow the criminal justice system to serve as a “conduit” for people to escape their substance use disorders. “People will be better off when they go through the cycle of drug addiction, in terms of finding a job (and) supporting their families. This will keep them out of the criminal justice system in the future, ”Neronha said. “It will help them be successful, and it will be good for them and for the rest of (society) as well.”

About Rhonda Lee

Check Also

Exec Farrow of Waukesha County: Waukesha County Focuses on Schools and Crisis Response During National Awareness Week

(Waukesha, Wis.) – This National Prevention Week, Waukesha County leaders announce new efforts to prevent …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.