In 1988, crime panic had invaded Rhode Island. Prosecutors reported that “heroin is out of control in Providence.” The state police publicly labeled Rhode Island “a mecca for drug salesmen.” An editorial in The Providence Journal opined that “such a situation has outraged the population.” Lawmakers responded by passing a package of bills cracking down on narcotics crimes, including one that imposed tougher sentences for certain drug crimes: a minimum of 10 years imprisonment for those convicted of selling or planning to sell an ounce or more of heroin or cocaine.
Today, reports the Providence Journal, most acknowledge that politicians had “gone overboard out of fear.” But legislation – revived after it was vetoed by the governor last year – would repeal mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, restoring discretion to the state's judges and limiting prison stays to 30 years. The Senate green-lighted the change earlier this month. The House is expected to pass it. “It just doesn't make sense to lock people up for that long for nonviolent offenses. The prisons in our state are overcrowded, so it's not sensible financially either and it's non-rehabilitative,” Jim Gillen, director of the Rhode Island Council for Addiction Recovery, said last week.