The clock is ticking for the Rhode Island State Legislature to pass bills through the General Assembly. It is likely to adjourn on June 15, and several bills aimed at reforming the criminal justice system are set to die in committee. 

This is frustrating activists, who say the bills have been killed seemingly out of nowhere, despite what they say is widespread support for the measures. 

At the Rhode Island state capitol building, activists rallied Wednesday to show their outcry against the likely death of some criminal justice reform bills. 

“This is an emergency. Perhaps it does not seem like an emergency to folks who are not sitting with loved ones in jail, but it is an emergency for our communities. Our community is under attack," said Anusha Alles, an activist with social justice nonprofit Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), addressing a group of protestors at the scene.

Alles was speaking out against the nearly guaranteed death of a bill meant to reform bail for people who are accused of violating probation. That bill, along with a bill to limit solitary confinement periods, likely won’t get a vote in their respective House and Senate committees before the General Assembly adjourns – effectively “killing” them until the next session. A third bill that would reform how misbehaving police officers are investigated and penalized could also die. 

It’s up to committee chairpeople to schedule votes for bills, but if Senate and House leadership think a bill won’t pass in the General Assembly, or don’t want it to, they can prevent it from coming to a vote. 

First is the bail reform legislation. This bill would have required Rhode Island judges to grant reasonable bail to people who are accused of violating the terms of their probation. 

Activists in support of this bill have been rallying around a woman who died after being held without bail. Carol Pona was arrested for stealing $202 dollars in January and held for three months awaiting trial because she was on probation for another felony. While in jail she was diagnosed with liver tumors, and died from liver cancer hours after being compassionately released with an ankle monitor.

Carol Pona’s daughter Tiqua Pona told The Public’s Radio last month that she had been fighting for this bill to pass. 

“I can't save my mom. My mom's not here any more. But I want to save others,” Pona said.

The bill apparently died at some point after Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha expressed to House and Senate leaders that he was not happy with it. His office emailed a statement saying he believes it should be up to the judge whether to allow bail. 

According to the statement, Neronha also opposed the bill on the assumption that it would require judges to grant bail to anyone accused of violating their probation. That’s not the case, though – the House committee considering the bill proposed amendments that would have continued to allow judges to prevent people with violent offenses from receiving mandatory bail. 

Second is a bill aimed at limiting the maximum length of time a person can spend in solitary confinement. Authors want to cap it at 15 days, which the United Nations says is the maximum amount of time someone can spend in solitary confinement before it counts as torture.

Nick Horton the Co-Executive Director of Open Doors RI, a prison reentry services non-profit. He said the chairs of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees told him the bill would not be voted on because of ongoing litigation that would also impact solitary confinement, albeit in a different way. 

“We find it extremely frustrating that the pending litigation process is being used as an excuse by the legislature to not move forward when this issue has been clearly ignored,” Horton said.

He also said he believes the bill did not get a vote in part because House leadership opposed it. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi did not respond to questions via email by deadline.

Also in support of the bill was the family of a man who died in solitary confinement in early May. According to the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, Brian Rodenas died by suicide – though his family disputes that and has accused RIDOC of foul play. His cousin Valentina Marianetti says she thinks he was in solitary confinement for more than 15 days, and that it’s horrible to think he spent his final days alone.

“As someone who loved, loves Brian, as someone who knew Brian better than the system for sure, knowing him and his soul, it’s heartbreaking,” Marianetti said.

She says that’s why she supported the bill to minimize the amount of time a person can be in solitary confinement. Marianetti was disappointed to hear the bill will not move forward.

“You have to think of them as humans instead of just looking to dismiss them because they're in prison,” she said. “It's callous to me. And how much more of a human are you, if you refuse to look at these other people who have done wrong because of the state that they're in?” 

Lastly, a bill to reform the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, known as LEOBOR, could also stall out before getting a general assembly vote. That’s according to the Rhode Island Black Lives Matter Political Action Committee. 

The activists in support of these bills say they plan to introduce them again when the legislature starts back up in January.