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Friday, May 25, 2012

Preventing future Woodmansee controversies

House OKs changes to ‘good time’ law
Sen Sue Sosnowski & Rep. Teresa Tanzi with Delia
From the State House Legislative News Bureau

STATE HOUSE – The House of Representatives today approved legislation aimed at preventing those serving time for particularly serious crimes from earning time off their sentences for good behavior.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski and Rep. Teresa Tanzi on behalf of Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, was introduced in response to the potential release last year of Michael Woodmansee, convicted of killing 5-year-old Jason Foreman in 1975 in South Kingstown

Woodmansee, who late agreed to remain in state custody through voluntary institutional commitment, was allowed to earn 12 years off the 40 he was supposed to serve through “good time” and participation in a prison job.

The legislation (2012-H 7112A, 2012-S 2179A) would ban those convicted of murder, attempted murder, first-degree sexual assault, first- and second-degree child molestation sexual assault and kidnapping of a minor from earning time off their sentences solely for behaving in prison. 

Under the current system, merely existing in prison for a month without incident earns a prisoner as much as 10 days off his or her sentence. The legislation would affect those imprisoned for crimes committed after its effective date, July 1.

The bill affects only time off for good behavior, not time off given to prisoners as an incentive for participation in rehabilitative programs or educational programs that teach life or career skills. 

The sponsors said it is necessary to draw a distinction between the two ways of earning time off, because participation in rehabilitative or training programs does have a public benefit by reducing the likelihood that the prisoner will return to a life of crime when released.

“Sooner or later, anyone serving less than a life sentence is going to be released. It’s better for everyone if those prisoners willingly participate in programs that lead to their rehabilitation and prepare them for their return to society. We want to make sure incentives for participation in programs remain. What we don’t want is to give people convicted of heinous crimes time off just for existing in prison. That’s a miscarriage of justice,” said Representative Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett).

Said Senator Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham), “Murderers, rapists and kidnappers should not be able to earn good time for simply not getting into any more trouble in prison. They have committed serious crimes, and it’s dishonest to tell their victims and their families that they will be serving a lengthy term, only to let them out much earlier, sometimes by many years, for no other reason than that they didn’t break any more rules. Sentences for serious crimes should mean something.”

The legislation was developed with the assistance of Criminal Justice Oversight Commission, which met over the course of the last year to discuss ways to balance the system of awarding time off to prisoners. 

The legislation will now be forwarded to the Senate for final approval. The Senate version of the bill has already been approved by the Senate once, but must return because it was amended by the House.