NEW: ACLU sues RI Department of Corrections for ‘unlawful incarceration’ of juvenile offenders
Friday, January 14, 2022
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The ACLU of Rhode Island’s cooperating attorneys filed two motions in the Rhode Island Superior Court on Friday, claiming that the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (DOC) is unlawfully holding people in prison who have been convicted of crimes committed. when they were minors or very young adults.
The lawsuit claims the DOC violates a law enacted by the General Assembly last year that targeted long sentences for young offenders and explicitly sought to help them gain early release from those sentences. The new law, known as “Mario’s Law”, provides that “anyone convicted of an offense before their twenty-second birthday” is eligible for parole after serving twenty years.
The law was passed in recognition that, as the U.S. Supreme Court noted, “even when they commit terrible crimes,” minors lack adult guilt because of their immaturity. and their underdeveloped sense of responsibility, the ACLU said.
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As the ACLU petitions note, the state’s new law was intended to give young offenders “an opportunity to demonstrate that they have matured from the person who committed the underlying crimes over the course of their early years.
“The General Assembly passed Mario’s Law to give young offenders a chance to reduce the length of their sentence by demonstrating that they can safely return to the community. The law has not relaxed the high standards they must meet before being released on parole; it has only shortened the time in which they can first attempt to prove compliance,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger. “The Department of Corrections reversed this legislative decision.
Despite this law, the ACLU asserts, the DOC has taken the position that the two petitioners, Pablo Ortega and Joao Neves, who as teenagers each received life sentences for murder and shorter consecutive sentences for related criminal conduct, are not eligible for release. after 20 years, but must first serve at least 20 years of their life sentence and then be “on parole” to serve an additional period of their consecutive sentence before they can be considered for release in the community.
The motions for post-conviction relief, filed on their behalf by ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorneys Lisa Holley, Sonja Deyoe and Labinger, raise various constitutional arguments and accuse the DOC’s interpretation of the law of being ” absurd and illogical, contrary to the express expression”. terms of the law and has the effect of nullifying its terms and defeating its purposes. The petitions note that “Parole can only mean release … from physical custody” of the DOC, not “Parole to a consecutive sentence.”
The petitions call for the immediate release of Neves and Ortega, subject to the conditions imposed on their parole by the Parole Board.
The ACLU writes that in Ortega’s case, the Parole Board unanimously granted him parole in November 2021, but left it to the DOC to decide whether, under the law, he could to be paroled in the community or rather paroled “until his next sentence,” a type of parole that the ACLU petition says makes no sense. As a result, he remains incarcerated despite the parole board’s approval for his release into the community. Neves was also granted parole from his life sentence after serving more than 20 years in prison, to begin serving a ten-year consecutive sentence he was given at the time. The Parole Board says it has no authority to challenge DOC policy on how parole is calculated.
The DOC’s interpretation of the law affects a number of other young offenders, including Mario Monteiro, whose incarceration continues for more than two decades, despite ample evidence of his rehabilitation from his criminal conduct as a juvenile, was an impetus for the adoption of the new law. aimed at giving young offenders a second chance after serving two decades in prison.
“Although the RI General Assembly enacted an amendment to the Parole Act to allow young offenders to be eligible for parole in twenty years, and the legislative intent of the amendment to the Act was very clear, the DOC’s interpretation of parole eligibility for these offenders is flawed and contrary to concepts of restorative justice,” Holley said. Continuing to incarcerate people who have proven they are rehabilitated and ready to being released into the community serves no reasonable purpose of public safety or justice.
“When the Legislature enacted ‘Mario’s Law’ last year, it did so after recognizing that scientific literature shows that our brains do not fully develop until the age of 25. The law states without ambiguity that after 20 years in prison, a young offender will be eligible for a parole if they are not eligible sooner,” Deyoe added. “The DOC’s baseless interpretation of the law allows it to continue to punish an inmate who has already served his sentence.