Elimination of life without parole would return RI to days before Craig Price

The Cranston Herald ·

Craig Price. The name alone conjures up visions of a monster, a boogeyman, a serial killer 30 years later. The cause of such visceral reactions are the crimes he committed and the age at which he committed them. Price violently murdered four people – including two children – when he was merely 13 and 15 years of age. How could a neighborhood teenager commit such violence? And, how could it be that Price would only serve five years for those crimes? 

At the time of Price’s crimes and confession, Rhode Island did not have the statutory ability to try and sentence him as an adult. Under the law, he was convicted as a juvenile and his sentence for those four murders ended when he turned 21 years old. (Price remains convicted for other offenses committed while he was incarcerated.) 

The public at the time was rightfully outraged, and demanded action. In response, the General Assembly passed legislation that, in certain cases, allows the State to request that a judge waive a juvenile out of Family Court so the juvenile can be tried as an adult for his crimes. 

If the Family Court grants the State’s request and the juvenile is tried and convicted as an adult, the juvenile is then treated like an adult for purposes of sentencing and eligibility for parole.

Now, however, a bill (S0237) passed by the Rhode Island State Senate would get rid of the protections the General Assembly sought to create in the event of another Craig Price. The bill, as written, effectively prohibits juveniles from being sentenced to life without parole, no matter how horrific or unimaginable an act they commit, and allows juveniles to seek parole after serving a mere 15 years, no matter the length of their original sentence or severity of their crime.

Right now, a sentence of life without parole is never mandatory in Rhode Island. It is imposed only after much consideration and review by multiple parties with several procedural steps that must be followed: significant internal discussion by a team of prosecutors with me signing off on the final decision, notifying the court, getting a conviction, arguing to the jury it is an appropriate sentence, and convincing the judge that it is an appropriate sentence.

Even then, the court can still disagree and grant the defendant the possibility of parole anyway.

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court concluded that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment and therefore violated the Constitution. As a result, a court can constitutionally impose a life-without-parole sentence on a juvenile only after it specifically take into account the person’s age and immaturity and how those factors influenced the juvenile’s behavior and prospects for rehabilitation. Rhode Island’s life without parole statute, as it stands, is constitutional with appropriate safeguards.

In theory, Rhode Island law allows juveniles who are being tried as adults to be sentenced to life without parole. Nevertheless, to date the State has never sought such a sentence for any juvenile defendant. Many are serving significant sentences for being found guilty for extremely violent offenses, including two individuals convicted of triple homicide.

While it is conceivable that a juvenile could someday face the possibility of a life-without-parole sentence, reality has not worked out that way. But if some unimaginably horrific crime were committed by a juvenile like Craig Price in the future, Rhode Island’s existing life-without-parole statute could be constitutionally applied to that juvenile because our courts could appropriately consider the impact of his or her youth and related circumstances before deciding whether to impose a life-without-parole sentence.

To eliminate the prosecutorial tool of life without parole would return Rhode Island to the days before we ever heard of Craig Price or the crimes he committed, and would allow juvenile defendants who commit horrific crimes to be released from prison after serving only a fraction of their sentence.

The proposed law would also undermine the court’s discretion in sentencing, and would require victims to continually go before the Parole Board to oppose early release of their offenders.

As the saying goes, past is prologue. We pray we never see another Craig Price. Then again, we never envisioned a Craig Price until it happened.  We need to keep the statutory protections in place so that we are not caught without options again.