The recent furor over the Rhode Island Parole Board’s decision to release Alfred Brissette after he served just 13 years of a 35-year sentence for second-degree murder is a reminder that we need to reform sentencing procedures in the state of Rhode Island.
Thankfully, the Parole Board has put their decision on hold in the face of an outraged public. But the fact that this body could be “impressed” by a murderer whose crime was described as a “brutal, barbaric and utterly senseless thrill kill” underlines the fact that something is wrong with the manner in which we consider putting violent criminals back into our communities. In this particular instance, the Parole Board justified their decision by saying they did not hear testimony from the family members of Brissette’s victim or from the Rhode Island Attorney General. The victim was not represented because her immediate family members had passed away and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s office said it was their policy not to weigh in on parole hearings unless they had input to offer that was not already available by reviewing the case file.
Rather than let such circumstances repeat themselves and face the possibility of violent criminals being returned to the streets after serving less than half of their prison sentence, we believe the General Assembly must immediately take steps to make sure prison sentences aren’t simply meaningless numbers. If a judge or jury sentences a murderer to a lengthy prison sentence, the public should be confident that time will be served and not swept away by a Parole Board swayed by jailhouse religious conversions, an inmate’s participation in prison programs or their rosy plans for putting prison behind them.
We will propose a package of legislation to reform the parole system and move us toward making sure prisoners serve a realistic portion of their sentences. These bills would: require convicted criminals who receive a life sentence to serve at least 30-35 years as opposed to the 20 years currently set forth in the law; require convicted criminals to serve at least half of their term before becoming eligible for parole; allow the Attorney General to veto Parole Board rulings on first- or second-degree murder cases; and require the Attorney General to give his opinion on parole decisions involving first- or second-degree murderers.
We understand that rewarding good behavior is a sensible policy in terms of managing correctional facilities. But allowing an un-elected Parole Board to wave a magic wand and make 21 years remaining on a murderer’s sentence disappear after just 13 years served is an affront to the judicial system. It puts dangerous criminals back into our communities without paying a meaningful debt for their crime.
Our legislation will narrow the gap between the intent of the judicial system in establishing a sentence based on the facts of a crime and the reality of the time that is served by the perpetrator of that crime. Rhode Islanders should be confident that the results of a trial cannot be undermined by an ill-defined early parole system, which sometimes fails to consider the public interest in keeping dangerous criminals behind bars.