2020 Legislative Session
Following the monumental passage of the Reproductive Privacy Act in 2019, which finally codified the principles of Roe v. Wade into Rhode Island law and guaranteed protection of safe, legal abortion in the Ocean State, it became clear that momentum towards further proactive legislation would continue into this year’s legislative session. In the first few weeks of the session, we have joined with many other groups in supporting the introduction of a bill to expand upon the RPA by extending healthcare coverage for abortions to Medicaid recipients and state employees.
But abortion is unlikely to define the 2020 session the way it did last year’s, and there are many other issues vying to take its place. The Governor’s FY2021 budget proposal reintroduces marijuana legalization for consideration, for example, and the Affiliate has already testified on controversial bills relating to medical marijuana, mandatory sentencing, and police databases. As in past years, we are preparing for hundreds of other bills that will impact civil liberties for better or for worse.
We’ll be updating this page as the session continues, so keep checking in for news on the most recent and most important legislation that we’re tracking and commenting on. And, as always, to learn how you can advocate alongside the ACLU at the state house, visit our Advocacy 101 page.
Civil Rights Bills
Gender Rating in Health Insurance (S 2125)Passed out of Senate Committee
Nationwide, women have historically been charged more for the same health insurance than 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 the uncertain status of Obamacare is concerning. This legislation, sponsored by Senator Susan Sosnowski, would codify this ban into Rhode Island law. We testified in support of the bill, which passed out of the Senate Health and Human Services committee the same night as the hearing.
Preservation of Families with Disabilities (H 7295, S 2139)Held for Further Study
Although the version of this bill introduced last year would have provided important and comprehensive protections for parents with disabilities and was strongly supported by the ACLU, a revised version introduced this session raises many concerns. This year’s bill, introduced as H 7295 and S 2139, is significantly weaker than the protections provided under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and could therefore cause considerable confusion and violations in its implementation.
Source of Income Discrimination (S 2134)Held For Further Study
Introduced by Senator Harold Metts, S 2134 would provide a critical protection against housing discrimination based on a potential tenant’s source of income, an issue which particularly impacts marginalized communities. 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. We supported this legislation which would prohibit this harmful practice and ensure that no tenant is denied housing due to the origin of their rent money.
Use of Campaign Funds for Childcare (S 2273)Passed out of Senate Committee
Currently, candidates can use campaign funds for a broad and disparate range of expenses, from graduation gifts to wine and meals. The Federal Election Commission has previously concluded that childcare, if the need for childcare arises as a result of campaign activities, can additionally be a permissible usage of campaign funding. Although the balancing of family and politics is always difficult, it is a particular burden for female candidates, and this legislation would further promote involvement in democracy for a more diverse group of candidates. We supported S 2273, introduced by Senator Gayle Goldin, which would essentially codify the FEC decision into Rhode Island election law.
Criminal Justice Bills
Mandatory Minimum Sentencing (S 2004A, H 7102)Passed Senate; Passed out of House Committee
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. A bill concerning “ghost guns”, or guns which are untraceable or do not appear on metal detectors, heard in both the House and the Senate in the second week of the session, contains such a provision which would have imposed such mandatory minimum sentences for new criminal offenses relating to weapons. We testified in opposition, arguing that the state should refrain from passing legislation that expands the use of mandatory minimum sentencing procedures.
Bail Reform for Misdemeanors (H 7143)Held for Further Study
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. Even when an individual is not convicted, a stay in jail for as short as a day can have devastating effects on their job, housing, and the life of their family. We supported legislation, H 7143, introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams, which confronts this aspect of the criminal justice system by allowing the pretrial release of individuals without the requirement of monetary bail for most misdemeanor charges.
“Porch Pirate” Penalties (H 7035)Held for Further Study
One of many bills which would generate a “new” crime would create specific penalties for individuals who commit larceny by stealing packages from either a house, office, or other dwelling. Despite preexisting penalties for crimes of theft, of which this offense would certainly fall under, H 7035 would additionally allow for confiscation of an individual’s car if they used the car to commit this "porch piracy" offense. We testified in opposition to this bill, noting that the confiscation of such a critical asset could severely impact both rehabilitation of the individual and the lives of their family members.
Cruelty to Animals (H 7299)Held for Further Study
Only a few years ago, the General Assembly enacted legislation which created harsh penalties for any person convicted of unnecessary cruelty to an animal, including hoarding, despite opposition from the ACLU and mental health advocacy groups who expressed concerns about the criminalization of this activity, which can be a symptom of some mental illness. We testified in opposition to H 7299, which would unnecessarily expand the punishments which can be doled out under the animal cruelty laws, including for hoarding offenses.
Bills Which Contribute to the Statehouse-To-Prison Pipeline
The ACLU has been consistent with our criticisms of pieces of legislation which lend themselves to the continuance of the statehouse-to-prison pipeline by either creating new crimes or increasing penalties for crimes which already exist. Each legislative session, dozens of bills are introduced, and a number of them passed, which counteract the important work of criminal justice reform, as these new crimes and increased sentences are often arbitrary and almost always unnecessary. The 2020 session is no exception; already, several bills have been heard which would needlessly bolster mass incarceration rather than address the need for reform of the criminal justice system. We testified against the following bills on this basis.
• H 7026 would create a new crime for making a knowingly false 911 call and inflict harsh penalties for conviction.
• H 7027 would increase fines, sentence lengths, and driver’s license suspension periods for the crime of leaving the scene of the accident.
• H 7033 would increase the maximum prison sentence and driver’s license suspension period for the crime of driving to endanger.
• S 2083 would expand the crime of “exploiting the elderly” to subject more defendants to its harsh penalties.
Wrongful Conviction (H 7086)Held for Further Study
Introduced by Representative Patricia Serpa, H 7086 would allow for any person sentenced to prison for longer than a year who is found to have been wrongfully convicted to petition for compensation and damages. We supported this important legislation which would allow for individuals who have been unjustly thrust into the criminal justice system to ensure that they have the resources to reintegrate into the community and recalibrate their lives.
Due Process Bills
Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (H 7235)Held For Further Study
Opposed by the ACLU, this legislation would allow Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN) to attest to a patient’s mental health condition and participate in certifying patients for mandated outpatient treatment, an action 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 hands of anyone but those of a physician.
First Amendment Rights Bills
Live Entertainment Restrictions (H 7193)Held for Further Study
The ACLU has previously opposed legislation which would give broad authority to municipalities to regulate and prohibit “live entertainment,” since such discretion and authority has great potential to raise serious First Amendment concerns. A bill introduced this session, H 7193, would give this authority to the town of Bristol, and we urged its rejection.
Net Neutrality (S 2103)Held For Further Study
“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 of the ubiquitously used and indispensable medium of the internet. This legislation has previously passed the Senate, only to die in the House.
Gay and Lesbian Rights Bills
Uniform Parentage (S 2136A)Held For Further Study
We supported S 2136A, introduced by Senator Erin Lynch Prata, which would update Rhode Island’s parentage and adoption laws to reflect the diversity of families that live in the state. This bill clears up ambiguities by guaranteeing the right for LGBTQ families to establish parentage in a manner consistent with all other families and would provide clear routes for parentage of children born through assisted reproduction.
Open Government Bills
APRA Exemption for Public Employee Residency (H 7351, H 7411)Held For Further Study
Two bills introduced this session, H 7351 and H 7411, would exempt from open records requests the disclosure of the municipality of residency for a public employee or police officer. We opposed the legislation, noting that the public has a right to know whether their law enforcement personnel are from their immediate communities or not, and that such exemptions provide a false sense of security in a time when even more specific personal information can be found online.
Police Practices Bills
State Police Computer System (H 7101)Held for Further Study
After a shooting in Rhode Island highlighted interjurisdictional gaps in information among police departments, a bill was introduced which would allow the state police to create a comprehensive, statewide records management program. While we did not take a position on the bill in concept, we suggested several amendments to the legislation which would strengthen privacy protections regarding the use of the database, including requirements similar to federal law which restrict the collection of information about First Amendment-protected activities and only allow for the collection of certain information if there is reasonable suspicion that an individual is involved in criminal conduct.
Rights of Ex-Offenders Bills
Expungement of Marijuana-Related Offenses (H 7091, H 7192)Held For Further Study
In 2016, the ACLU released a report which 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 licenses, and find housing. Especially given the significant racial disparities evident in drug-related offenses, it is unconscionable to burden individuals with a criminal record for a victimless crime.
Two bills introduced this session, H 7091 and H 7142, introduced by Representative Jason Knight and Representative Anastasia Williams, respectively, would provide avenues for expungement of certain offenses related to drug possession. H 7091 would allow for the expungement of felony simple possession offenses five years after the completion of a sentence, and H 7142 would provide for an automatic expungement process for individuals convicted of a crime of marijuana possession. Both bills would ensure rehabilitation and community reintegration following an individual’s involvement with the criminal justice system and would provide for the appropriate legal avenues to do so. We testified in favor of both pieces of legislation.
Sex Offenders Bills
Juvenile Sex Offenders (H 7197)Held For Further Study
Currently, any juvenile charged with a serious sex offense can be waived into adult court where conviction of, or plea to, an offense would automatically subject them to the onerous and punitive requirements of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, or SORNA. However, even juveniles whose charges are dealt with as delinquent conduct in Family Court are subject to the same requirements, needlessly damaging their lives and rehabilitative efforts. To address this harmful practice, H 7197, introduced by Representative Robert Jacquard and supported by the ACLU, would severely limit the number of juveniles adjudicated in Family Court for sex offenses who would be required to register under SORNA.
Students Rights Bills
Funding for Field Trips (H 7043, H 7069, S 2327)Passed the House, Held for Further Study in Senate
When a decision from the former-Commissioner of Education, supported by the ACLU, came out last April and affirmed guidelines for equity in the administration of public school field trips, it provoked considerable and extensive confusion and public attention. Even before this year’s legislative session began, it seemed inevitable that legislation to address this topic would swiftly move through the General Assembly.
As predicted, two pieces of legislation quickly introduced in the House of Representatives attempted to address the former-Commissioner’s decision by statutorily allowing for parental contributions towards the funding of school field trips. However, what the former Commissioner’s decision appropriately noted is that in order to ensure accessibility and equity for all students regarding these formative educational experiences, no student or parent can be required to provide payment for these trips or be forced into the stigmatizing position of asking for a fee waiver for financial reasons. We offered several amendments to these two pieces of legislation, H 7043 and H 7069, to ensure the essence of the Commissioner’s ruling remains intact. The House amended their legislation to reflect our concerns, and we supported the amended version which passed on the House floor.
The Senate additionally introduced legislation concerning field trips which we supported; we did, however, urge amendments to clarify the strictly voluntary nature of any requested donations.
Sunscreen in Schools (H 7123)Held For Further Study
Regulations promulgated by the Departments of Health and Education restrict students from self-administering over-the-counter medication, including important preventative care products such as sunscreen, on school campuses without “parental authorization.” Although we supported this legislation, introduced by Representative David Bennett, we pointed out the absurdity that a student who could bring and administer sunscreen under this bill still wouldn’t be able to utilize an ointment to treat a sunburn without this discretionary permission. We encouraged the committee to enact a more expansive piece of legislation to address this issue, such as H-7506, sponsored by Rep. Susan Donovan, which would allow older students the right to bring OTC medication to school.
Workplace Rights Bills
Fair Employment Practices (H 7080, H 7226)Held for Further Study
The ACLU supported two bills, H 7080 and H 7226, introduced by Representatives Camille Vella-Wilkinson and John Edwards, respectively, which would strengthen the Fair Employment Practices Act by making individual employee-supervisors, and not just the company employing them, subject to personal liability for their own acts of discrimination. This personal liability is particularly important for deterring sexual and other forms of harassment. H 7080 also positively revises the definition of employee to include elected officials, volunteers, and unpaid interns, and eliminates an archaic exemption for domestic workers.
Another bill that was recently heard and is designed to protect domestic workers – encompassing occupations such as housecleaners, nannies, and other caregiving positions – is H 7156, introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams and supported by the ACLU. It would include them as an employees for purposes of the state’s minimum wage laws.