- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Top state senators are moving forward on legislation aimed at scaling back Rhode Island’s high probation rate by stressing mental health treatment instead of incarceration.

A package of probation and parole reforms is a top priority of Democratic Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed after it was defeated last year because the House never voted on it.

Rhode Island has one of the nation’s lowest incarceration rates, but a report last month by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics shows it has the fifth-highest rate of people under probation or parole, and second-highest if including only probationers.

Reform advocates have said that’s in part because people released from Rhode Island prisons are given longer probation terms than in most states. Reports in recent years have shown about 1 in 20 adult men in the state, and 1 in 6 black men, is on probation.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Michael McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, introduced measures last week and plans to hold hearings on them Thursday. One of the bills would set up a court program for people with mental illness charged with minor crimes to be diverted to substance abuse screening and counseling.

“I think in the long run it’s going to save money,” McCaffrey said. “We’re getting people treatment for illness and the disabilities they have as opposed to incarcerating them.”

Rep. Robert Craven, a North Kingstown Democrat, has introduced companion legislation in the House and also hopes to get the bills debated soon to avoid the delays that affected last year’s proposals. Another bill creates a batterer’s intervention program.

The proposals emerged from the findings of a 2015 criminal justice reform working group formed by Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo. The Senate approved the bills last year, but companion bills in the House died in the final hours of an overnight session before lawmakers adjourned for the year.

Some reforms recommended by Raimondo’s 2015 group have already been implemented without legislative action. The state Supreme Court in June approved an overhaul of probation sentencing rules.

State officials have been working with the New York-based Council of State Governments Justice Center to craft the reforms. The group has also worked with several other states on criminal justice system overhauls, and said Rhode Island’s proposed legislative changes reflect shifts that are already beginning to happen in practice.

“The legislation really seeks to modernize Rhode Island’s probation system,” said Ellen Whelan-Wuest, a project manager for the group. “It’s nothing drastic. There’s no dramatic policy changes.”

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