The Center urges legislative leaders to reconsider two bills that would provide Justice Reinvestment Initiative and occupational licensing reforms.

Center Joins Liberal Groups in Supporting Two Justice Reinvestment Bills that would Benefit Minority and Other Communities

Bi-Partisan Coalition Supports Right-to-Earn-a-Living for Nonviolent Criminals and Protecting Civil/Property Rights

Providence, RI – The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity urges legislative leaders to reconsider two bills that would provide Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) and occupational licensing reforms, two areas consistently supported by the Center in recent years. 

Each bill has similarly been implemented in over dozens of other states in recent years. And each bill has earned broad bi-partisan support among grassroots activists and other lawmakers in Rhode Island following their respective committee hearings. It is only General Assembly leadership that is holding them back. 

H5863, which also provides occupational licensing reforms, would provide increased opportunities for people with minor criminal records to to earn a living for themselves and their families by removing unfair barriers and reducing burdens to obtain occupational licenses and certifications that are required in many industries. 

Rhode Island’s regulatory laws often effectively impose a ban against individuals with a record from obtaining many licenses to work. Even vague crimes of “moral turpitude” are subject to such unjust prohibitions. 

H5863 would remove many such unfair barriers and clarifies statues that make it overly difficult for prior criminal offenders to work in certain occupations. These changes would allow more individuals to re-enter society with the opportunity to live self-sufficient lives; in turn, improving the health of the state’s economy and reducing the recidivism rates and its associated costs.

“The more evolved view of America’s criminal justice system, by advocates on both the left and the right, is that after paying their debt to society, certain nonviolent offenders should be rehabilitated and trained to become a productive working member of society,” commented the Center’s CEO, Mike Stenhouse. “But yet in Rhode Island, burdensome occupational licensing laws often make it impossible for these individuals to find gainful employment.”

The conservative Center joins with DARE, the RI-ACLU, and other liberal advocacy groups in supporting H5863.

The Center also supports H5721, a JRI bill that it crafted, which would completely re-write the Rhode Island’s “civil asset forfeiture” statutes, by which state and local government agencies may seize the property of suspected criminals or regulatory violators, many of whom are never charged or convicted. This legislation would help protect civil rights and the rights of property owners against overly-zealous government seizures, a phenomenon that disproportionately impacts low-income and minority communities.

The Center’s CEO, Mike Stenhouse, testified at the March House Judiciary Committee hearing on H5721, which is also supported by the RI-ACLU, Occupy Providence, the Rhode Island Public Defenders Office, and the D.C. based Institute for Justice. There was no testimony opposing the legislation, yet legislative leaders are reluctant to move the legislation forward because of opposition from the law enforcement community, which benefits, sometimes unjustly, from the proceeds of seized assets.

A compelling video, research data, summary of the legislation, and copies of submitted testimony can be found on the Center’s home page for Asset Forfeiture reform

The Center issued a major report on the need for occupational licencing reforms in 2018, Right to Earn (a living). The Center also joined with Democrats to help push through a package of JRI reform legislation in 2017; as part of the Center’s Family Prosperity Initiative.

Building off the successful “Justice Reinvestment” reforms that were enacted in by Rhode Island lawmakers in 2017, the state’s asset forfeiture laws should next come under scrutiny, as they can often lead to the unfettered government seizure of cars, cash, and other private property.

Asset Forfeiture Reform in Rhode Island: Summary of 2018 Legislation – H7640 and S2681

Building off the successful “Justice Reinvestment” reforms that were enacted in by Rhode Island lawmakers in 2017, the state’s asset forfeiture laws should next come under scrutiny, as they can often lead to the unfettered government seizure of cars, cash, and other private property. While many policymakers might assume that such laws are directed at criminals, in reality, simply being accused of a crime or violating a regulation may be sufficient for the state to take your property.

Rhode Island was recently graded at a D- in a national report by the Institute for Justice for its weak civil forfeiture laws, which, nationally, have led to some of the most egregious infringements of private property rights in the U.S. today. In the past 12 years, over $17 million of private property has been seized in our state.

While the original good intent of forfeiture laws cannot be disputed — removing the illegal gains, resources, and instruments of those committing crimes from their reach — decades of experience has made obvious the need for statutory reforms, long overdue if Rhode Island is to keep pace with criminal justice reforms being made in other states across America.

Current Law: Rhode Island law sets a very low bar on the front-end by allowing the government to seize property on the mere basis of criminal suspicion and for non-criminal regulatory violations. If you don’t hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit to reclaim your own property, you soon lose it. On the back-end, Rhode Island also sets a very high bar for innocent property owners to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. Further, state law allows the government agency that seized your property to keep the majority of it as a means to supplement their own budgets, creating a perverse incentive to violate due process and property rights.

In its January 2018 report, Right To Earn a Living, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity advocated that civil asset forfeiture reforms would improve the State’s poorly ranked business climate, by raising the bar for asset forfeiture from businesses and individuals as well as to adopt better forfeiture administration. The Hopkins Center has researched best practices in the other states that have adopted reforms, and drafted language new criminal forfeiture law that every Rhode Island legislator could support.

Also supported by business groups, the RI ACLU, the RI Families Coalition, and civil society leaders, the bi-partisan legislation (H7640 & S2681) represents a total rewrite of existing statutes and which includes the following key features:

  1. Raised the bar for seizures: Avoids government taking for civil violations and from non-defendant property owners and co-owners, while also building-in legal protections before the state seizes property.
  2. Lowered the bar for due process: Provides less-burdensome, prompt, and streamlined legal procedures for innocent property owners to reclaim seized assets.
  3. Increased transparency: Greater transparency around forfeiture actions so that public officials and citizens have the data to provide appropriate oversight. The 4-pages of new reporting provisions include keeping track of and reporting how much the government seizes, whether property owners are ever convicted of a crime, and how much money comes in from those seizures, as opposed to the 4-lines of reporting in current law.
  4. Enhanced administration: Improves administration of forfeiture programs in order to increase the credibility of law enforcement as they conduct permitted seizures; including prohibition of sale of assets for any person’s gain and a streamlined process for returning property.
  5. Budget accountability: Unelected bureaucrats in state and local agencies should not be empowered to manage profits from asset forfeitures or be free from public accountability. Legitimately seized moneys go to the state’s general fund where duly elected officials decide if and how to redistribute them.

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Stenhouse Testimony on Justice Reinvestment Initiative Bills

The PDF below is the written testimony submitted on January 31, 2017 to the House Judiciary Committee by the Center’s CEO, Mike Stenhouse, with regard to the House package of bills recommended by the state’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI).

The testimony follows the prior day’s release of the Center’s Right on Crime policy brief, which discusses the impetus behind these bills, as well as other criminal justice reform issues.

PDF of Stenhouse Testimony