RI State Report: Drunk Driving, School Safety, and Synthetic Drugs

Saturday, March 30, 2013


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This week’s State Report centers on three major pieces of legislation approved by the General Assembly. Not only did the Senate approve legislation that stiffens penalties on drunk driving, but the House also passed a pair of bills that look to improve school safety and protect Rhode Islanders from harmful synthetic drugs.

Aside from legislative news, we’ll look at the latest chapter in the gay marriage debate and examine a $4.8 million federal grant which the state has received to help combat homelessness.

Senate passes stronger penalties for those who drive drunk with children present

On Wednesday, the Senate approved legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin that strengthens penalties for adults who drive drunk with a child in their vehicle.

“Driving under the influence is a serious offense, but it rises to a new level of danger when it endangers a helpless child,” said Goodwin. “People who drive drunk with a child in their cars are committing a much more serious crime than DUI, and they deserve a much more significant sentence. This bill sends a message that putting a child’s life at risk in this way will not be tolerated in Rhode Island.”

The bill would institute immediate license suspension pending prosecution, make the crime a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, a fine up to $5,000, a two-year license suspension and required attendance in an alcohol treatment program. Rhode Island’s current law states that anyone convicted of DUI with a child under 13 in their vehicle be sentenced to up to one year in prison.

In October, a 25-year-old Richmond man was arrested for allegedly driving drunk at 120 miles per hour with his 2-, 3-, and 4-year-old children in the vehicle.

The bill will now make its way to the House, where Rep. Robert E. Craven is sponsoring similar legislation.

House passes ban on certain synthetic drugs

In an effort to crackdown on illegal drug chemists, the House passed legislation on Tuesday to prohibit the use, manufacture and sale of synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones.

Sponsored by Rep. Joseph McNamara, the legislation would ban entire chemical classes that include the compounds found in synthetic marijuana and bath salts. The state health department reports that three Rhode Islanders died last year after using bath salts.

Although state and federal laws already barred some of the compounds, drug chemists were able to evade the law by tweaking various molecular compositions, according to Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.

“While we have taken steps to outlaw versions of these drugs, manufacturers continually alter the chemical makeup of their products to circumvent the law,” said Kilmartin. That is why we need to address the compounds used to produce these dangerous drugs and this legislation does just that. I am pleased the House passed this important legislation and look forward to working with the Senate on the companion legislation.”

McNamara’s bill will now head to the Senate for consideration. An identical bill introduced by Sen. Stephen R. Archambault is before the Senate Committee on Judiciary.

House OKs background checks for school volunteers

On Thursday, the House unanimously approved legislation that would require criminal background checks for all “current or prospective” volunteers at schools.

The state already requires background checks for individuals seeking employment with private and public schools, but the newly passed legislation would broaden the scope of the law and increase safety in state schools, according to the bill’s sponsor Rep. Joseph M. McNamara.

“As programs that rely on or use volunteers grow in school settings, adding this language to the law is the safe and responsible thing to do,” said McNamara. “We don’t want to stand in the way of volunteerism in schools, but we want to put student safety first.”

A similar bill has already been approved in the Senate. The Senate bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Michael J. McCaffrey, is currently before the House HEW Committee.

Six mayors join push for marriage equality

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Less than one week after 650 supporters and opponents took to the State House to voice their opinion of same-sex marriage, six Rhode Island mayors called on the Senate on Monday to pass legislation that would allow same-sex couples to marry.

“As mayors, we are proud to stand together in support of the freedom of all loving, committed couples to marry,” said Providence Mayor Angel Taveras. “The right to marry is an issue of fundamental fairness. I join my fellow mayors from communities across our state in calling on our elected leaders in the General Assembly to pass Senate Bill 38 and finally bring marriage equality to Rhode Island.”

Aside from Taveras, the group includes Donald Grebien of Pawtucket, Daniel McKee of Cumberland, James Diossa of Central Falls, Charles Lombardi of North Providence and Scott Avedisian of Warwick. The group is comprised primarily of Democrats, with Avedisian being the lone Republican.

A bill legalizing same-sex marriage passed the House in January, but a Senate vote has yet to be scheduled. Although Democrats hold a 32-5 majority in the Senate, several key Democrats including Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman are all opposed to same-sex marriage.

Rhode Island is the only state in New England where same-sex marriage is illegal.

RI gets $4.8 for homelessness programs

Rhode Island’s housing organizations received a major boost in funding earlier this week thanks to a newly announced $4.8 million federal grant designed to help reduce homelessness.

Sen. Jack Reed announced the funding on Monday at the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless annual awards dinner. According to Reed, the funding will provide some much needed relief to the state’s homeless population.

“Whether it is helping a homeless veteran who is struggling with PTSD or a family that is on the brink of becoming homeless, these grants provide critical assistance to those in need,” said Reed. “This federal funding is essential to effectively addressing the needs of the homeless.”

The funding will be dispersed amongst 43 local housing assistance programs statewide, which provide services to homeless veterans, the mentally ill, families, single men, women and children.

In June, Rhode Island became the first state to enact a “Homeless Bill of Rights” into law, which pledges that no individual be denied rights to access public services because he or she is homeless.

According to the most recent statistics from the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, there were 4,410 documented homeless in 2011, an increase of nearly 500 since 2007.


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