Report: Rhode Island ranks 10th nationwide for mass punishment
Incarceration and supervision rate rivals that of Southern states
Rhode Island has a low incarceration rate compared to other states but is among the top states for the number of people on probation. (Getty image)
Rhode Island prides itself in its progressive approach to corrections, with the number of people behind bars per capita at half the national average.
But a look at the state’s probation rates show that mass punishment in Rhode Island is on par with tough on crime states like Louisiana, a new study shows.
There were 2,500 Rhode Islanders incarcerated at the end of 2021 — a rate of 289 per 100,000 people, according to new research from the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit group which researches the effects of community supervision on the formerly incarcerated. That compares to a national average of 566 per 100,000 residents.
But far more people in Rhode Island are on probation: 18,000. That’s a rate of 1,911 people for every 100,000 residents.
Louisiana — which has the highest incarceration rate in the nation — has a rate of 1,953 per 100,000 people. Overall, Rhode Island ranks 10th in the United States for mass punishment, just behind the Pelican State. Six of the top 10 states are southern states. Rhode Island is the only state in the Northeast.
“This suggests that Rhode Island likely is overusing probation and parole and likely unnecessarily sending large numbers of people back to jail and prisons for technical violations, disrupting their lives and wasting taxpayer dollars,” said Mike Wessler, communications director for the Prison Policy Initiative.
Roughly 3.7 million adults nationwide are on some form of community supervision like probation or parole — almost twice the number of people in prisons and jails combined.
In Rhode Island, an offender may be sentenced to probation either in lieu of incarceration or after incarceration.
Probation and parole are often billed as alternatives to incarceration, but the report argues the two go hand-in-hand.
Under Rhode Island law, people arrested on a probation violation charge may be held at the Adult Correctional Institutions, the state Department of Corrections’ complex of prisons, for up to 10 days while awaiting a hearing for their violation.
“Staying in compliance with dozens of high-stakes, arbitrary rules is so unmanageable that experts call community supervision systems a ‘deprivation of liberty in their own right,’” the report reads.
The Prison Policy Initiative suggests states such as Rhode Island reform their systems so probation is used as an actual diversion to incarceration rather than what has become effectively a punitive measure.
Wanda Bertram, a communication strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative, pointed toward New York, which in 2021 passed a law that allows someone on probation or parole 30 days’ credit off their sentence for every 30 days they are not in violation status.
Since the law has taken effect, New York has seen a 40% decrease in its parole population, Betram said.
This suggests that Rhode Island likely is overusing probation and parole and likely unnecessarily sending large numbers of people back to jail and prisons for technical violations, disrupting their lives and wasting taxpayer dollars.
– Mike Wessler, communications director for the Prison Policy Initiative
In Rhode Island, prison inmates can earn a maximum of up to 17 days per month of jail time credit — which includes 10 days per month for good behavior, two days per month for working, and five days per month for participating in an approved course or program.
There is no credit for good time served while on probation.
Another suggestion, Bertram said, is ending cash bail. She said the practice just further harms and incarcerates those who do not have any money.
“When you are allowed to be in the community prior to your trial, you’re able to do more to put together your defense,” Bertram said. “I think these changes would be very beneficial to Rhode Island.”
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.