2019 Legislative Session
2019’s legislative session is proving to be eventful and jam-packed, and the ACLU has been busy making sure that civil liberties are on the General Assembly’s agenda. On our list of priorities this year is ensuring the passage of a bill to codify the protections of Roe v. Wade into Rhode Island law, supporting open-government and transparency, and continuing to champion key criminal justice reform legislation. We also look forward to discussion around the legalization of recreational marijuana and the most effective way to balance school improvement and success with the preservation of students’ rights.
This page will be updated as the session progresses, so keep checking in!
Reproductive Privacy Act (H 5125 Sub A, S 0152 Sub A)
As the attitude of the US Supreme Court towards abortion rights becomes murkier, pro-choice organizations, including the ACLU, continue to push for the constitutional protections of Roe v. Wade to be codified into Rhode Island law. The Reproductive Privacy Act, introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams and Senator Gayle Goldin (H 5125 Sub A and S 0152 Sub A), serves to preserve the status quo of abortion healthcare in Rhode Island, and to ensure that the shifting ideology of the Supreme Court does not impede upon a person’s right to choose. The RPA also repeals several state laws on the books which have been found to be unconstitutional, such as a spousal notification requirement. The ACLU testified (read our two pieces of testimony here and here) in support of the critical provisions contained within this bill. We also submitted a detailed memo rebutting the spurious claims of bill opponents that the legislation went beyond the principles of Roe. Supporters of the RPA celebrated a huge victory when the bill passed the House with no amendments by a vote of 44-30. However, in May, the Senate Judiciary Commitee defeated the bill on a 5-4 vote. Efforts to revive the bill continue. The Affiliate also prepared a detailed rebuttal to an alternative proposal offered by Sen. Stephen Archambault, who voted against the bill in committee.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Insurance (H 5364, S 445)
Nationwide, women have historically been charged more for the same health insurance as men, solely because of their gender, leaving women less able to purchase vital health care coverage. This practice is generally illegal under the Affordable Care Act, but gaps in the law allow the practice to continue. This legislation (H 5364, S 445), sponsored by Rep. Katherine S. Kazarian and Senator Susan Sosnowski, codify this ban into Rhode Island law. We testified in support of the bill in both the House and the Senate, but neither chamber has held a vote on the legislation.
Source of Income Discrimination (H 5137, S 331)
H 5137 and S 331, introduced by Rep. Anastasia Williams and Sen. Harold Metts, provide a critical protection against housing discrimination based on a potential tenant’s source of income, which particularly impacts tenants of color and those with disabilities. Currently, landlords can deny housing applications simply because the applicant uses income originating from areas such as Social Security, child support payments, or Section 8 vouchers. This legislation would prohibit this practice and ensure that no tenant is denied housing because of where their rent money came from.
Benefits for LGBTQ Veterans (H 5443, S 837)Passed House
For decades, excellent military personnel were forced to leave the military on “less than honorable” discharges once it was it was made known that they identified as a part of the LGBTQ community. H 5443, introduced by Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson and S 837, introduced by Senator Dawn Euer, and supported by the ACLU, would ensure that veterans discharged solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity would still qualify for state veterans’ benefits. The House passed this legislation and we expect to see it before the Senate for a hearing soon.
Discrimination Against Parents with Disabilities (H 5562, S 702)
H 5562, introduced by Representative Terri-Denise Cortvriend, and S 702, introduced by Senator Louis DiPalma, would preclude the disability of a parent from acting as a basis for denial of issues regarding their children, such as welfare or guardianship. We supported the legislation because a fundamental component of disability rights is the ability to care for one’s family without fear of discrimination and because families have been subjected to this discriminatory treatment.
Tampon Tax (H 5307)
Although the list of items exempted from sales tax in Rhode Island is extensive and disparate, including horse food products and promotional literature for boat manufacturers, one class of product is noticeably absent and thus subjected to this tax: feminine hygiene products. In fact, Rhode Island law treats them as “luxury items.” We testified in support of H 5307, introduced by Rep. Edith Ajello, which would add feminine hygiene products to the items exempted from sales taxes. As these products are purchased predominantly by women, the practical result is a sex-based tax on items that, we feel confident saying, no Rhode Island woman views as a luxury.
Both chambers collaborated to put forth a package of bills intended to provide a comprehensive overhaul of the public education system in Rhode Island. Ranging from teacher and principal certification to reporting requirements for the schools, this legislation (H 5008, H 6084, H 6098, H 6100, H 6099, H 6085) (S 863, S 864, S 865, S 866, S 867, S 868, S 869) contained both good provisions and room for improvement.
H 6098, H 6100, S 866, and S 867 all contain a provision that aspiring teachers be of “sound moral character.” We expressed concern about the value-laden and open-ended nature of this requirement, which would be a new statutory criterion.
H 6100, S 866, and S 867 would all additionally require the applicant to take and pass a standardized written test. The ACLU has long expressed concerns about the imposition of a statutory requirement for teacher standardized testing. Not only do we believe that such testing is flawed as a method for determining teacher competency and skills, but that it will have a significant and adverse impact on racial minorities. For these reasons, the state banned this practice until 2003 and the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Positively, however, H 6098, introduced by Representative Karen Alzate, contains a provision which would explicitly bar a teacher certification applicant from being disqualified solely by their performance on a standardized test. Because standardized tests have been shown to have a negative impact particularly on test-takers of color, and because they do not show the full spectrum of an applicant’s strengths, we supported this important language.
We also noted that both S 865 and H 6084 could benefit from minor amendments which would add benchmarks such as race, gender, and disability to the reporting requirements mandated by the legislation.
Criminal Justice Bills
Non-Monetary Bail (H 5088)
H 5088 would establish procedures for non-monetary bail for eligible detainees. The legislation is designed to address the critical problem faced by lower-income residents who find themselves in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay a cash bail. The ACLU offered suggestions for strengthening the bill in order to ensure it accomplishes its goal.
Indigency Court Costs (H 5196)
H 5196 is designed to strengthen a law that requires courts to consider a criminal defendant’s ability to pay before assessing exorbitant costs, fines or fees. Bill proponents argue that the current statute is too often honored in the breach. A video of our testimony in support of the legislation can be found here.
Bail Reform (S 492, S 602, H 6065)
While wealthier individuals who can post bail are permitted to go home while awaiting their hearings, those without immediate cash flow are forced to stay in jail until their case is heard, creating a wealth-based incarceration system. We testified in favor of S 492, S 602, and H 6065, introduced by Senator Ana Quezada, Senator Sandra Cano, and Representative Anastasia Williams which would confront this aspect of the criminal justice system by promoting pretrial release of individuals without the requirement of monetary bail.
Due Process Bills
Animal Care Service Inspections (H 5297)
H 5297 would grant constitutionally problematic powers to both the Department of Environmental Management and the RISPCA. The bill intends to regulate “unlicensed animal care providers” by allowing the DEM and RISPCA the ability to conduct investigations, impose fines, and possibly request search warrants on animal care providers if the organizations receive a (potentially anonymous) complaint about the provider. Because of this, the bill would violate critical tenets of criminal law, such as the requirement of probable cause.
Driver’s License Fines Reduction (S 78)
Under current law, drivers must pay the entirety of their traffic fines or risk the suspension of their driver’s license. This system, in Rhode Island and nationwide, can trap individuals in a cycle of poverty as they struggle to pay their fines and get to work without the ability to legally drive. Sponsored by Senator Frank Lombardi, S 78 addresses this serious problem by providing an “ability-to-pay” hearing to authorize payment plans or a reduction in the fines owed before a driver’s license suspension is imposed as punishment. The ACLU testified in strong support of the bill.
Emergency Commitment of Substance Use Disorder Patients (H 5751)
Similar to legislation introduced in previous years, H 5751 would allow a physician to request a hold on a substance-abusing patient and provide a process for a court hearing to determine if emergency commitment would be appropriate for the patient. We argued that although the bill is well-meaning, it raises massive due process concerns and could be counterproductive to the goal of recovery.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (H 5167)
H 5167, opposed by the ACLU, would allow Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) to attest to a patients’ mental health condition and participate in certifying patients for mandated outpatient treatment, which is presently something that only doctors can do. Although we understand the role that APRNs play in the mental health community, we argued that when it comes to medical recommendations for involuntary treatment, patients are stripped of critical elements of due process when the decision is in the hand of anyone but a physician.
Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Gun Bills (H 5022, H 5703, H 5739, H 5741)
The ACLU has consistently opposed the imposition of mandatory minimum sentencing terms on the grounds that they are ineffective, costly, eliminate individualized consideration of the offender and the circumstances of the offense, and place too much power in the hands of prosecutors instead of neutral judges. Four “gun bills” up for consideration this session, H 5022, H 5703, H 5739, and H 5741, contained provisions which would have imposed such mandatory minimum sentences for new criminal offenses relating to weapons. We testified in opposition to these provisions, arguing that the state should refrain from passing legislation that expands the use of mandatory minimum sentencing procedures.
Asset Forfeiture (H 5357, H 5721, S 229)
Rhode Island is only one of 10 states where probable cause is all that is necessary for assets to be confiscated in a civil proceeding, which means that law enforcement in RI can confiscate the property of any person suspected of having committed certain offenses, whether or not that person is ever convicted or even charged with a crime. H 5357, H 5721 and S 229, introduced by Representatives Brian Newberry and Moira Walsh and Senator Harold Metts, would ensure judicial oversight in the process of asset seizure by law enforcement, and provide for the ability of Rhode Island residents to retain their belongings without the burdens that a civil forfeiture process places upon them. We testified in support of these important pieces of legislation.
Juvenile Questioning (H 5334, S 496)
It’s no surprise that juveniles are generally less able than adults to understand, and act upon, their legal rights while being questioned, but law enforcement proceeds as if they were well-informed adults with a full grasp of the situation. H 5334 and S 496, introduced on behalf of the ACLU by Representative Rebecca Kislak and Senator William J. Conley, Jr., would prohibit the questioning of a juvenile suspected of criminal activity without a parent or legal guardian present. A case recently handled by the ACLU encapsulates the need for this legislation, when an 8-year-old girl was removed from a school bus, transported to the police, interrogated, and detained without her parents knowing.
Seizure of Animals (H 5433)
The ACLU expressed concerns about the breadth of this legislation, which would allow representatives of the RISPCA, a private organization, to seize animals if they appeared to be “aged,” “disabled,” or “sick,” without any requirement of exigent circumstances. This provision is a significant violation of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, and we urged the committee reject the legislation.
Animal Abuse Registry (H 5113)Passed House
We opposed H 5113, which would create an “animal abuse registry” similar to the registration requirements already in effect for persons convicted of sex offenses. Like other bills which would impose onerous registration burdens and establish broad community notification requirements, this registry would be costly, undermine rehabilitation of offenders, subject individuals to severe criminal penalties for failing to follow proper registration requirements, and would promote the harassment of ex-offenders seeking to reintegrate into the community. Although national organizations such as the ASPCA and the American Kennel Club also oppose ineffective animal abuse registries, this bill recently passed out of House Judiciary and will soon be voted on in the House.
First Amendment Rights Bills
FY 2020 Budget (H 5151 Article 5, Section 9)
Article 5, Section 9 of the proposed FY 2020 budget includes, amongst other potential taxes on "services," a proposed 7% sales tax on "lobbying services." We argued in both Senate Finance and House Finance Committees that this tax amounted to a direct levy on the exercise of political speech, a quintessential First Amendment activity. We further noted that by solely applying this tax to lobbying, and not any peripheral services related to it, such as public relations or political consulting, the core exercise of the First Amendment right to petition government for the redress of grievances was particularly being singled out for adverse treatment. The proposal also allows the "dues" of organizations engaged in lobbying services to be taxed. Our testimony noted that this budget provision could have a significant fiscal impact on many non-profit organizations that engage in lobbying, including the ACLU itself.
Anti-Panhandling (H 5042)
Rather than confronting the issues that cause individuals to engage in panhandling, H 5330 seeks to ban the practice instead. The bill would fine a motorist for passing anything out of their window to another individual while in an “active lane of travel.” While H 5330 penalizes the motorist rather than the panhandler, the right for individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment right to solicit donations is violated regardless of which side is punished. The ACLU testified in opposition to this bill. A similar bill was defeated in committee last year, and we hope to see the same outcome this session.
Net Neutrality (S 40)Passed Senate
“Net neutrality” guarantees that access to the internet remains non-discriminatory and that internet service providers can’t choose what sites you have access to or how quickly you can access them; the same principle underlies the regulation of phone companies, ensuring that your connection to Pizza Hut isn’t faster to the pizza place down the street simply because Pizza Hut pays for faster connection times. We testified in favor of this critical legislation, introduced by Senator Louis DiPalma, noting that open and equal access is a cornerstone to the ubiquitously used and indispensable medium of the internet.
Book Sales Tax (H 5158)
H 5158, introduced by Rep. Arthur Corvese, would clarify the current tax exemption that exists for the sales of books by their authors to apply to works of non-fiction as well as fiction. Currently, the Division of Taxation and the Council for the Arts, the agencies responsible for implementing this law, distinguish between the two, interpreting the exemption for “an original and creative work” to only apply to works of fiction. In addition to raising serious First Amendment issues through this distinction, the agencies provide no guidance for what constitutes a work of fiction or a work of non-fiction; how, for example, would a non-fiction, graphic autobiography such as Persepolis be viewed? We testified in support of this important bill.
Gay and Lesbian Rights Bills
Uniform Parentage (H 5706, H 5707, S 497, S 789)
We supported both H 5706 and H 5707, introduced by Representative Carol McEntee, and their Senate companion bills S 497 (introduced by Senator Gayle Goldin) and S 789 (introduced by Senator Erin Lynch Prata), which would update Rhode Island parentage and adoption laws to reflect the diversity of families that live in the state. The bills clear up current ambiguities by guaranteeing the right for LGBTQ families to establish parentage in a manner consistent with all other families and provide clear routes for parentage of children born through assisted reproduction.
Immigrants' Rights Bills
Driver’s Licenses for All (H 5511, S 153)
With the federal government creating an increasingly hostile environment for undocumented immigrants, it is imperative that Rhode Island take steps towards protecting the rights of all of its residents. H 5511 and S 153 would allow for one such critical measure, by extending the right to obtain a driver’s licenses to those who are undocumented. Supported by the ACLU and the Immigrant Coalition, as well as the Governor and the DMV, H 5511 would let undocumented immigrants in the state qualify for a driver’s license.
Sensitive Locations (H 5518)
We testified in support of H 5518, which would protect certain “sensitive locations” in the community, such as schools and hospitals, from enforcement actions and arrests by federal immigration agents. The bill is based on Department of Homeland Security policies, which are now honored in the breach. The ACLU believes that this bill is a necessary step towards providing safety and security to our undocumented population.
Immigration Status (S 231)
We supported S 231, introduced by Senator Harold Metts, which would prevent landlords from inquiring about the immigration status of their tenants or potential tenants. In our testimony, we noted that this legislation is critical to ensure that undocumented individuals can maintain healthy housing without fear, and to guarantee that a landlord couldn’t use sensitive information for a retaliatory or threatening purpose.
In-State Tuition for Undocumented Students (H 5919)
H 5919, introduced by Representative Grace Diaz, would ensure the accessibility of higher education to students who have spent a considerable amount of their adolescence in Rhode Island but may not have citizenship status. Not only is affordability of higher education a crucial component of educational equity, but particularly for undocumented students, the benefit of having affordable and accessible higher education close to home cannot be overstated. The ACLU supported the bill.
Medical Privacy Bills
Opioid Overdose Notification (H 5383, S 139 Sub A)
The ACLU has been vigilant in opposing “solutions” to the opioid epidemic that compromise patient rights, including their right to confidentiality. It is for that reason we opposed both S 139 and H 5383, which would allow hospital emergency physicians in unspecified circumstances to notify the emergency contacts of a patient, without his or her consent, who has experienced a drug overdose. Among other things, the ACLU noted that some patients may go to dangerous lengths, such as avoiding medical help altogether, in order to avoid having medical personnel disclose their condition against their wishes.
Immunization Registry (H 5541, S 676)
H 5541 and S 676 would authorize the Department of Health to create an adult immunization registry upon which the burden to opt out would rest on each individual. In objecting to the bill, we noted that databases containing private medical information should instead require patients to opt in. We also expressed concern over the potential expansiveness of the registry and the data it would be authorized to collect and maintain.
Compassionate Care Act (H 5555, S 320)
At the core of our constitutional freedoms is the right to self-determination, both throughout one’s life and at the very end of it. Legislation introduced by Representative Edith Ajello and Senator Gayle Goldin and supported by the ACLU would allow for certain terminally ill patients to make knowing and competent decisions about death and peacefully determine the end of their lives with dignity, autonomy, and privacy.
Health Insurance Privacy (H 5556, S 580)
In an effort to protect the medical privacy of individual members on an insurance plan, H 5556 and S 580, introduced by Representative Susan Donovan and Senator Gayle Goldin, would require that explanation-of-benefit documents be sent to the member that they concern, rather than the holder of the plan. We supported this bill, noting that guaranteed patient privacy would empower members of the plan to seek the medical attention they need without worrying about their information being sent to someone else.
Marijuana Real Estate Disclosure (S 334)
Although vetoed last year by the governor, S 334, which would require disclosing whether a property had been used to grow marijuana before being sold, was re-introduced this session and continued raising concerns. We opposed the bill, commenting that it could breach medical marijuana patient confidentiality and that it did not differentiate between growers and large cultivators, meaning that a patient with two personal plants could be subject to exposure for their method of obtaining medication.
Open Government Bills
House Rules (H 5037 Sub A)Passed
In a remarkably quick beginning to the legislative session, a resolution to adopt rules for the House of Representatives for the years 2019-2020 (H 5037 Sub A) made its way out of committee and to a floor vote within the first two weeks of the session. On the bright side, and in a small win for governmental transparency, the new rules established that the public would, generally, have 24-hour advance notice before a committee hears a substitute amended bill. However, the rules also contained an extremely weak system of investigation for sexual harassment complaints arising from within the Statehouse. Some other minor changes to the rules were made in response to ACLU suggestions.
Senate Rules (S 250 Sub A)Passed
Echoing a positive change made to the House Rules, S 250 Sub A includes the requirement for a minimum 24-hour advance posting of substitute bills up for consideration. Some other positive changes were made to the Rules based on the ACLU’s testimony. However, the adopted version also contains a new ban on signs, placards, or posters at committee hearings, rejecting our argument that the public should have the right to express their views through the display of signs.
Open Meetings Act (H 5702)
In a long overdue overhaul of the Open Meetings Act, legislation introduced by Representative Robert Craven (H 5702) strengthens language in the existing law and addresses technological advancements which have occurred since the OMA was last comprehensive amended two decades ago. Read our testimony on this bill here.
Prisoners' Rights Bills
Juvenile Sentencing (H 5333, S 341)
As the Supreme Court has noted, adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences.” This legislation (H 5333 and S 341), sponsored by Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell and Sen.Harold Metts, addresses the problem of lengthy prison sentences for juveniles who are charged as adults. We testified in favor of the bill, which would allow juveniles sentenced in this manner to automatically come before the parole board after fifteen years, regardless of the length of their sentence.
Civil Death (H 5491, S 235)
Rhode Island remains one of only three states to still have a statute on the books which declares any person serving a life sentence in prison “civilly dead.” This provision is so archaic that the Harvard Law Review called it “outworn as a mode of punishment” all the way back in 1937. Unfortunately, Rhode Island not only retains but utilizes the statute; the Department of Corrections as recently as 2018 sought to bar an inmate from bringing a civil rights suit over his living conditions at the ACI because he was civilly dead and thus had no standing to sue. This legislation, strongly supported by the ACLU and introduced by Rep. Evan Shanley (H 5491) and Sen. Gayle Goldin (S 235), would repeal this outmoded statute.
Roadway Surveillance (H 5042)
Although the Department of Transportation has adopted strong privacy regulations concerning the use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) for the state’s new tolling system, there is no law which codifies these practices. H 5042, introduced by Representative John Edwards and supported by the ACLU, would restrict the use of ALPRs and limit the purchasing or sharing of ALPR-obtained data between private organizations or law enforcement agencies.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Background Checks for Occupational Licensing
Often, seemingly innocuous licensing bills have provisions including expansive and vague language which could render individuals with a criminal background, no matter what crimes they have been convicted of or how long ago their conviction was, unable to procure certain occupational licenses. H 5228, S 267, H 5367, S 138, H 5572, S 443, H 6033, and S 576 are some of these bills.
• H 5228 and S 267 would require evidence that the candidate is of “good moral character” when applying for a school psychologist license with no standards for what this entails, potentially allowing for prior convictions to disqualify an applicant.
• H 5367 and S 138 would resurrect a previously repealed statute governing the licensing of medical lab professionals and would allow for a denial or suspension of a license for a conviction of any felony or misdemeanor for which an “essential element is dishonesty.”
• H 5572 and S 443 maintain language which includes under unprofessional conduct a “conviction of a crime of moral turpitude,” a vague, undefined, and highly subjective phrase which the ACLU has worked to remove from statute for years.
• S 576 and H 6033 include offenses such as felony banking law violations and felony drug possession as grounds for denial of a license for massage therapy, despite the irrelevance of the crimes to the practice of massage and regardless of the amount of time that has passed since the conviction.
These pieces of legislation could perpetuate systems of discrimination against individuals with past criminal records; we urged the Committee to impose specific and strict limitations on the use of criminal records which could inappropriately prevent individuals from entering fields for which they may be eminently qualified.
Sex Offenders (H 5488, H 5755)
H 5488 would allow innkeepers to kick out a Level III sex offender who had lived in the establishment for more than 30 days, and H 5755 would allow a court to raise or lower a sex offender’s community notification level in an appeal. In opposing these bills, we noted that harsh legislative restrictions on the rights of sex offenders are counterproductive and can promote recidivism by making it extremely difficult for them to reintegrate into the community.
Fair Chance Licensing (H 5863)
The ACLU, along with a number of other advocacy groups, has long been concerned about the impact of criminal-record related professional licensing restrictions. Dozens of licensed occupations in our state have some form of conviction-related barrier codified by legislation, and every year legislation gets introduced to include more barriers to licensing based on a person’s past criminal record – no matter how old or irrelevant that record may be. Reference to some of these bills is included earlier within this section.
H 5863, introduced by Representative Scott Slater, would ensure that an individual’s prior criminal record is not the sole measure by which an applicant is disqualified for a license, and would create a comprehensive process for determining the relevancy of a conviction to the license being sought. We testified in support of the bill, noting that it would give a fair chance to all Rhode Islanders who meet applicable and appropriate qualifications to obtain an occupational license.
Sexual Privacy Bills
Commission to Study Decriminalizing Sex Work (H 5354)
H 5354, introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams, would create a commission to study the impact of decriminalizing prostitution laws in Rhode Island. The ACLU and other advocacy groups noted the disproportionate impact that arrests for prostitution have on women and the inappropriate use of police resources for a victimless crime. We testified in support of the resolution.
Students Rights Bills
Military Recruiter School Access (H 5250)
H 5250 would grant access to student names, addresses, and phone numbers to military recruiters unless the student or parent of the student opts out of having this information made available. An ACLU of RI study from a number of years ago found that most school districts do not provide clear and consistent methods for informing students of their right to opt out, and so we encouraged the adoption of amendments that would better protect students’ rights in these circumstances.
Over-the-Counter Medication In Schools (H 5323, S 264)
Introduced by Rep. Susan Donovan, H 5323 would allow high school students to bring over-the-counter medications for self-administration on school property. Current regulations require school authorization; we argued that students shouldn’t need permission from a school nurse to bring Tums or Midol to school. We testified in favor of a similar Senate bill, S 264, introduced by Senator Ana Quezada, which would allow use of medication to treat menstrual cramps and vaginal yeast infections by students without parental authorization.
Threat Assessment Teams (H 5538)Passed House
A heightened fear of violence on school campuses has led to legislative efforts intended to mitigate potential threats, but that sometimes impinge on civil liberties; H 5538 is one such of these bills. This legislation would create threat assessment teams for each school in Rhode Island and allow individual school boards to adopt relevant policies for their implementation.
We testified that while we fully support the inclusion of mental and behavioral health specialists on campus who can assist students in need of psychological support, there is a current demonstrated lack of these personnel on school campuses. Increasingly, the scarcity of these specialized staff members has been supplemented by school resource officers. We’re concerned that assembled threat assessment teams could become heavy on law enforcement and light on staff who professionally provide mental health support. We also noted that enforcement protocols like this would disproportionately affects students of color and students with disabilities, whose behaviors, actions, and words are often perceived as more threatening than those of other students.
School Computer Privacy (S 549)
In recent years, distributing computers to students in our public schools for home use has become commonplace. Unfortunately, as a study we conducted from two years ago showed, students have virtually no privacy protections on these computers, with some policies even allowing remote spying on students. S 549, introduced by Senator Adam Satchell, would implement comprehensive privacy requirements for these computers which would only allow school officials to search devices if they have reasonable suspicion to believe the student has engaged in misconduct on the computer, and would prohibit remote access except in limited circumstances. We testified in support of this bill.
Right to an Education (H 5252, S 42)
For students in low-income communities, remedies for a lack of educational equity are particularly urgent. H 5252, introduced by Representative Mary Messier, and S 42, introduced by Senator Roger Picard, would propose an amendment to the Rhode Island constitution guaranteeing the right to an adequate education. The Rhode Island Supreme Court has several times rejected the notion that students have a judicially enforceable right to an education; this bill would ensure and constitutionally establish this right as fundamental. The ACLU supported this legislation.
Commission to Encourage People of Color to Enter the Educational Field (H 5553)
According to data provided by RIDE, 42% of students enrolled in the Rhode Island public school system during the 2017-2018 school year were students of color. 87% of educators in our public schools are white.
Studies have well-documented the connection between having teachers of color and high achievement in minority student populations. We supported H 5553, introduced by Representative Karen Alzate, which would create a special legislative commission to study ways in which Rhode Island can encourage people of color to enter the field of education. In our testimony, we urged the consideration of policies which would bar teacher applicants from being disqualified from certification solely based on their performance on a standardized test, due to the noted gaps in passing rates between white test-takers and test-takers of color.
School Resource Officer Funding (H 5370)
Despite a noted lack of counseling staff and behavioral health services in public schools, proposals to increase school safety tend to arrive back at the same “solution”: increasing school resource officers on campus. The ACLU opposed H 5370 which would do just this by indefinitely extending a reimbursement program for school districts that choose to hire additional SROs. We testified that a reimbursement program could incentivize the funneling of critical financial resources into law enforcement rather than sorely needed mental health programs, and that increased disciplinary and enforcement protocol and personnel on campuses will disproportionately affect students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students.
Technological Privacy Bills
Computer Verification of Hours Worked (H 5255, S 125)
Although introduced as a bill that would hold state contractors accountable for their paid work, this Orwellian legislation would virtually ensure significant violations of personal privacy. H 5255 and S 125 would require software to take screenshots of a contractor’s computer every three minutes, which would be available to the state in “real time” in order to verify a contractor’s billed hours.
Consumer Privacy Protection (S 234)
While we supported several provisions in S 234, which addresses the sale and maintenance of consumers’ personal information by businesses, we noted that the legislation could be strengthened in two ways in order to more effectively protect consumers. First, we emphasized the benefits of an opt-in procedure over an opt-out procedure for consumers deciding whether or not to have their data shared, as opt-in procedures are more transparent and intentional. We also offered suggestions to strengthen the remedies for violations of the law, including the ability for a successful plaintiff to recover attorneys’ fees when bringing suit.
Voting Rights Bills
Presidential Tax Returns (H 5727, S 342)Passed Senate
We have long opposed legislative efforts to impose added qualifications in order for candidates to appear on the ballot in Rhode Island. For that reason, we oppose H 5727 and S 342, which would require presidential candidates to publicly disclose their federal tax returns in order to be listed on the ballot. The ACLU argued that the ability to vote for an individual’s preferred candidate is a critical part of the fundamental right to vote.
Election Reform Bills (H 5736, H 5292, H 5698, S 323, S 339, S 477, S 631)
The ACLU testified on a variety of election-related bills, some of which we supported and some of which we did not. On the positive side were important pieces of legislation which would allow candidates to use campaign funds to finance childcare (H 5736, S 323), repeal Rhode Island’s voter ID law because of the obstacles it creates to the right to vote (S 339), and establish a meaningful process for early voting (H 5292, S 631). We also supported a piece of legislation which would subject the Board of Elections to the rule-making provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act, H 5698, introduced by Representative Joseph Shekarchi.
Prison Gerrymandering (H 5513)
When it comes to drawing new voting districts, any individuals incarcerated at the ACI in Cranston on the day the Census worker comes through are recorded as living on Howard Avenue at the prison, including individuals awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences who are still allowed to vote, but only from their home addresses. As a result, Cranston is overrepresented in the General Assembly, while the districts from where the prisoners hail are underrepresented. (Approximately 15% of House District 20 is comprised of voters who cannot vote in Cranston.) The ACLU is once again supporting legislation, sponsored by Representative Anastasia Williams (H 5513) to rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes only, at their last known address. The Prison Policy Initiative joined us in support of this legislation.
Counting of Write-In Candidates (H 5709, S 477)
Regardless of who a vote is for, even if it is for an inevitably losing cause, all voters fundamentally deserve the right for their votes to be counted. For this reason, we opposed a bill (H 5709, S 477) which would eliminate the counting of write-in votes for persons who had not filed in advance a “declaration of intent.”
War on Drugs Bills
Harm Reduction Centers (H 5545 and S 297)
Although it may appear counterintuitive, one of the most effective ways to address substance use disorder is through the establishment of clinics in which an individual can self-administer previously obtained controlled substances. The success rate of these harm reduction clinics, which provide a safe place for individuals and access to rehabilitative and medical services, is extremely high; not a single fatal overdose has occurred worldwide at one of these centers.
We testified in favor of legislation which would implement a pilot program for these clinics (H 5545 and S 297, sponsored by Rep. Scott Slater and Senator Joshua Miller) but noted that a critical part of its success would be statutorily ensuring that law enforcement have no jurisdiction over the clinic and couldn’t arrest anyone for activities occurring within the clinic.
Legalization of Marijuana (H 5151 Article 20)
One of the most publicized and contentious aspects of Governor Raimondo’s proposed FY 2020 budget is the legalization of adult-use recreational marijuana. The ACLU supports the legalization of marijuana in principle, but we also took a deep dive into the full 128-page proposed Article. We echoed concerns from the medical marijuana community who wished to see the medicinal and recreational forms of the drug sold and marketed separately, so that those who rely on it for medicinal purposes have consistent, reliable access in a supportive facility.
We additionally raised questions regarding the heavy handed distribution of fines and penalties for potentially minor infractions, the lack of any employment protections for marijuana users, and criminal record restrictions on entering the marijuana business, freezing out many people in communities of color who bore the brunt of the war on marijuana for decades. Representatives from the Department of Health, the State Police, and the Department of Business Regulation all expressed strong support for the bill, but its fate will probably not be known until the budget is voted on in June.
Drug Reclassification (H 5760, S 472)
The implications of a felony charge versus a misdemeanor are substantial, and impact numerous facets of one’s life, including access to employment, housing and higher education. S 472, introduced by Senator Michael McCaffrey, and H 5760, introduced by Representative Scott Slater, would reclassify simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. We spoke in favor of the legislation, noting that this bill would ensure that an individual’s criminal record does not automatically exclude them from the very structures they need to support their recovery.
Cannabis Equity Act (H 6067)
According to an ACLU report from 2016, Rhode Islanders who are black are three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white Rhode Islanders. Especially considering the low overall rate of arrest for marijuana possession in Rhode Island, this racial disparity is troubling and striking.
H 6067 would statutorily mandate a study to determine whether these racial disparities exist in both the process to obtain a state license to sell marijuana and in arrest and conviction rates for marijuana-related crimes. We supported this bill, because as Rhode Island moves closer to legalizing marijuana, it is critical to consider the substantial impact on those who were most affected by its criminalization.
Expungement of Marijuana Charges (H 6066)
We supported H 6066, introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams, which would authorize the expungement of criminal convictions related to the possession of marijuana, presumably in conjunction with the legalization of the drug.
In 2016, the ACLU released a report that showed that black residents of Rhode Island were three times as likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white residents. Among other things, the presence of a criminal record can make it more difficult for individuals to find employment, obtain occupational licensing, and finding housing. Especially given the significant racial disparities, it is unconscionable to burden individuals with a criminal record for a crime which is not only victimless, but which the legislature has since determined is a non-criminal offense altogether.
Workplace Rights Bills
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
During last year’s legislative session, the ACLU was highly supportive of Representative Teresa Tanzi’s special legislative commission to study sexual harassment in the workplace and the package of legislation that arose from it. We support the reintroduction of the legislation, which was never brought to the House floor for a vote.
Among other things, the bills amend the definition of “employee” to include volunteers and unpaid interns (H 5346, introduced by Representative Tanzi), expand the statute of limitations for employees who have been victims of workplace misconduct (H 5341, introduced by Representative Evan Shanley), and explicitly provide the Human Rights Commission the jurisdiction to investigate sexual harassment complaints which originate from within the State House (H 5439, introduced by Representative Camille Vella-Wilkinson, and S 460, introduced by Senator Gayle Goldin). We testified in favor of the entire package of legislation. The other bills in this package are H 5340, H 5342, H 5343, H 5345, and its Senate companion bill S 598, and H 5361.