Each year, from 1990 through 2019, anywhere between 1,041 and 2,094 defendants were brought before the Superior Court on felony charges involving narcotic drugs, many of them opioids.
All together, over the past 30 years, state prosecutors filed charges against 48,357 defendants who were caught possessing or dealing narcotic drugs, data kept by the state’s judiciary shows.
On the face of it, that amounts to almost 5 percent of the state’s population.
But an analysis of those cases shows that each year, more than half the people who appear before the Superior Court on narcotics charges are repeat drug offenders, men and women who year after year, month after month, get arrested, prosecuted and sometimes, incarcerated for using and/or dealing drugs.
In recent years, more than two-thirds of drug offenders who come into Rhode Island’s criminal justice system are repeat offenders. Back in the 1990s, when the opioid crisis began, between 80 and 91 percent of drug defendants who shuttled in and out of the state’s Superior Courts had previously been charged with a drug offense. Police reports and court filings show that many of these repeat offenders suffer from substance use disorders that have often gone untreated.
Last year, in an effort to see how drug crimes have been prosecuted since the opioid epidemic began, a team of Brown University journalism and computer science students began an investigative reporting project to track all narcotics cases through the criminal justice system. The project was overseen by Tracy Breton, a Brown University journalism professor and Pulitzer Prize winner who worked for 40 years as an investigative and courts reporter for The Providence Journal.
The university spent $2,000 to purchase the Rhode Island Judiciary’s database. A team of senior computer science students sifted through tens of thousands of drug cases dating back to 1990. They culled out marijuana cases, focusing just on Schedule I-V drugs, which include cocaine, methamphetamines and LSD in addition to opioids. Teamed with a group of advanced journalism students who read hundreds of court files and police reports, they attempted to tell a data-driven story about how the state’s judicial system has dealt with the opioid crisis. This had never been done before. The data analyzed by the Brown students tracked every felony narcotics case that made its way through the court system over the past 30 years.
For charging purposes, Rhode Island’s criminal statutes do not delineate what drug a person is being targeted for so it is impossible to tell, for example, how many people have been prosecuted for dealing Oxycodone versus heroin or fentanyl.
Certain patterns, however, do emerge from the data for narcotic drug crimes. Who is being targeted for prosecution and the punishments meted out have evolved with changing attitudes about substance use and in response to the opioid epidemic, which has killed approximately 3,000 people in Rhode Island in the last decade, according to numbers recorded by the Rhode Island Department of Health.
While many facets of how narcotics cases are handled have changed, others have not.
Relatively few drug offenders are sentenced to prison – between 20 and 25 percent. And for those who do get prison sentences, the amount of time they are sentenced to prison is decreasing.
From 1990 to 2016, most defendants who received prison time for narcotics offenses were sentenced to serve 1 to 3 years in the Adult Correctional Institutions. During the same time period, over 6,000 were sentenced to more than 5 years.
But in 2017, the average length of prison sentences decreased. Since then, the most common sentence imposed by judges has been less than 180 days.
Prosecutors are also less frequently charging users and instead prioritizing manufacturing and delivery cases.
In 1990, 95 percent of the narcotics charges prosecuted were for simple possession; in 2019, it was just over 51 percent.
And the number of people being sent for drug treatment and/or substance abuse counseling has seen an increase as the opioid crisis has taken a bigger toll on the state.
Despite these changes, the percentage of repeat offenders who appear before Superior Court judges for drug offenses has not decreased in recent years, even though experts say people suffering from addiction have many more options for drug treatment than they had 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
While the data reveals many different trends, one thing remains unclear: Were people of color treated the same as whites when it came to sentencing? Even though Rhode Island’s police departments record the race of all suspects they arrest, the Rhode Island Judiciary does not keep track of the race of defendants who appear before its judges.
Craig Berke, spokesperson for the judiciary, said the courts formed a Racial and Ethnic Fairness Committee in September 2020, which includes a sub-committee focused on the issue of data collection. “I know that we’re looking at what would be involved in recording [race] prospectively,” Berke said. “It’s definitely something we’re taking seriously. It’s just looking backward is going to be tough, because I don’t think it would be consistent.”
Still, court documents and police reports narrate the stories of these drug offenders, who range from chronic users to big time dealers — or some combination of the two. What they all have in common: they’ve spent a significant part of their lives in and out of court rooms.
Joseph A. Tiberi, of Coventry, faced 16 drug charges from 1982 to 2011. Born in 1932, his rap sheet goes even farther back, into the 1950s, for charges like disorderly conduct and breaking and entering. Tiberi had connections to organized crime and made headlines over and over again for his involvement in the Federal Hill’s Decatur Social Club, known for illegal gambling and even a prescription drug ring under Tiberi’s charge.
Some of the heavier sentences for drug offenses were often doled out to individuals like Tiberi, those who were charged over and over again for manufacturing and delivering drugs. In 2011, at 78 years old, he was sentenced to serve seven years at the ACI after pleading no-contest to 23 counts of conspiracy to violate the controlled substances act.
But rap sheets like Tiberi’s aren’t the norm. Court data and case files show that many repeat offenders charged with drug possession are clearly drug addicts and are more often users than sellers. Tiberi’s son, also named Joseph, falls into this category of offender. Tiberi Jr. was charged with drug offenses nine times from 1982 to 2018. At age 20, he was targeted as a dealer — charged with two possession with intent to deliver cocaine charges. From 2006 on, his charges were exclusively for simple possession, but he didn’t receive any type of court- mandated treatment until 2010.
Ronald Giguere from Woonsocket was another offender who found himself shuttling in and out of the system, mostly for simple possession charges.
After being charged with possessing heroin in October 1998, the court sentenced him to nine years of probation, in addition to mandating that he pay the state drug education fund $400. But Giguere was not required to enter any drug treatment program, even though in the six years prior, he had already come before the court for four other drug cases and had been mandated treatment before.
A little over a year later, in November 1999, he was caught, again, for possession of heroin, which got him five months to serve in the ACI, with a 31-month suspended sentence but no mandated treatment. And prison didn’t seem to deter him.
In October 2000, Pawtucket Police responded to reports that there was a white male knocking on people’s doors and ringing their doorbells. When police arrived and asked him what was wrong, Giguere, 44 years old at the time, said he was looking for his doctor. He told police his medication was wrong and he needed it “straightened out,” according to the police report.
Police found packets of heroin on Giguere and a syringe in his sock. It was his third drug possession charge in three years. This time, a judge sentenced him to three years’ probation with substance abuse counseling. Giguere hasn’t faced a drug charge since.
In the span of two decades, though a drug offender may be committing the same crimes, the way the criminal justice system has responded has changed.
The shift away from long prison sentences and prosecuting users who were never caught dealing drugs reflect a change in how criminal justice stakeholders — prosecutors, judges and law enforcement — view substance use disorders.
“Today, we’re operating in an era where there’s thought being put into the business of how we administer law enforcement and look at the criminal justice system in a much more holistic sense,” said former state Attorney General James E. O’Neil, who served as Rhode Island’s top law enforcement officer from 1987 to 1993.
But in the 1980s and 90s, the “war on drugs” was looked upon as “the end all evil,” said O’Neil. “Law enforcement efforts were designed primarily to get as many ounces, pounds, or kilos off the street as possible.”
It was seldom considered whether the behavior of a person being charged with a drug offense might be linked to a substance use disorder, said O’Neil.
There was also a thin line between being charged with simple possession versus possession with intent to deliver, often depending simply on the quantity of drugs a person had on them at the time of arrest. This distinction could mean the difference between probation and prison time, and was one of the reasons why the rate of simple possession charges at the time was so high — between 81 and 96 percent of all drug charges.
The types of charges alleged offenders face are determined by state statutes, but also by the discretion of police officers who decide whom to arrest, and prosecutors who decide which of those cases to bring to trial. All felony drug cases go through a screening process in the Office of the Attorney General.
“Sometimes the case can come into screening looking one way and can come out as something very different,” said Attorney General Peter F. Neronha in a recent interview.
Neronha, a former United States Attorney in Rhode Island who took on big drug traffickers in that position, says that since becoming the state attorney general in 2019, his philosophy has been “when in doubt, don’t charge it.” That means that currently, many felony arrests by police, including those for drug offenses, are reduced to misdemeanors or not charged at all.
Policing, at least at the urban level, has changed too.
“We now look at drug use and drug abuse and those chronically addicted to opioids in a different way,” Providence Police Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr. said in an interview. “Over the last several years, we have become a part of a consortium and a comprehensive collaborative effort to deal with this as a public health crisis.”
His department meets weekly with the Rhode Island Department of Health, substance use disorder experts and community outreach groups, pulling together all their data to find overdose hotspots, discuss which types of drugs are on the street and determine what more they can all do to keep people safe.
Mental health and substance use disorders often land people in front of police, Clements said. “And are we the best profession to deal with it? Which is now the question. Most certainly, no. However, it certainly has been placed on us, right or wrong.”
Though the department doesn’t try to target users through drug investigations, Clements said the line between user and dealer can be blurry.
Clements said he classifies dealers into different levels: “nickel and dime” dealers who sell to accommodate their own addictions, moderate level dealers, and even a few “Providence drug kingpins.”
The potency of drugs being distributed illicitly has increased in recent years, with more fentanyl and other synthetic opioids on the streets than ever before. Sometimes, it’s the lower-level dealers suffering from substance use disorders who are responsible for selling lethal drugs to other people who suffer from addiction.
“I'm not a strict law-and-order guy when it comes to that,” Clements said. But, “I hear from the families who've lost loved ones, and they want to know who sold their son or their daughter, or their brother or sister, that drug, that narcotic. And they want answers, they want closure.”
Addressing the needs of all community members, whether they are in the throes of addiction or asking for increased policing to make the city safer, is a hard line to tow, Clements said.
Generally the ratio of simple possession charges to charges of possession with intent to deliver brought by the police has decreased as law enforcement officers statewide are targeting fewer users. Since 2000, there’s been a 36 percent dip in such charging. But in 2019, prosecutors brought 2,097 simple possession charges against defendants arrested by the police for narcotics offenses, 474 more than the previous year.
When asked to comment on this increase in simple possession charges, which often involve drug users, Clements said that the very recent increase in Providence, the epicenter of drug activity in Rhode Island, could be due to increased calls from the community to address drug activity and the quality of life issues it brings.
Attorney General Neronha says this uptick might also be explained by the backlog of 1,600 cases he inherited upon taking office in 2019. While it is unclear how many of these 1,600 cases were related to drug offenses, an unusually high number of overall charges went through the court system that year, he said. The Department of Attorney General charged 8,852 cases statewide in 2019, compared with 6,092 in 2018.
Since the start of his tenure, Neronha has directed prosecutors in his drug unit to be more thoughtful about the sentences they recommend.
This is in stark contrast to when he worked in the office as a line prosecutor 20 years ago, when a drug user might get a five-year suspended sentence and/or probation for simply possessing a needle and syringe without any drugs.
“That’s a ticket to prison,” Neronha said “because odds are, you’re using drugs, you’re caught with the drugs, and next time you’re on probation, you’re gone.”
Now there is an emphasis on understanding that the path to recovery is not a straight line, Neronha said.
As Rhode Island’s top prosecutor, Neronha said he has tried to make sure that the attorneys working in his office think about these distinctions and how they can use their discretion in sentencing recommendations.
Neronha’s marching orders to his prosecutors have been to think about defendants individually. The circumstances of the offense, the defendant’s age, and the position of the individual in the community should all be considered when recommending a sentence, he said.
The philosophy around sentencing drug offenders has also shifted.
Superior Court Judge Kristin E. Rodgers has witnessed this change first hand. She said that when she became a judge in 2009, she and other criminal justice stakeholders, including even medical professionals who advised them, did not have the same understanding of substance use disorders that they do now.
Rather than viewing substance use as a medical issue, Rodgers said many judges saw it as a “moral failing” which led them to increase the severity of individuals' sentences every time someone came before the court. (Many repeat offenders are brought before the court as probation violators as a result of committing new offenses to feed their habits.)
But after a suspended sentence had been increased to a three-month stint in the Adult Correctional Institutions, nothing was changing “and low and behold, they were back before us in another six months,” Rodgers said.
Seeing people come in and out of the system so frequently “was cyclical and it was so frustrating,” she said. “We were not doing anything more than delaying the inevitable of putting individuals back out on the street to engage in the same behavior.”
With the advent of Obamacare and the realization that the high number of opioid-related deaths in the state and the country qualified as a public health crisis, Rodgers said there was a shift in mentality and practice.
The passage of the Affordable Care Act increased treatment accessibility to offenders who were often represented by public defenders and couldn’t afford treatment in private programs. This, coupled with the state’s push in 2016 to make all three evidence-based medication-assisted treatments for opioid use disorder — methadone, buprenorphine, and vivitrol — available in and out of the correctional system has strengthened the effectiveness of substance abuse treatment, Rodgers said.
Over the last couple of years, the number of people sentenced to court-mandated drug treatment increased from 103 defendants in 2013 to 363 in 2019, the Rhode Island Judiciary’s data shows.
Rodgers said it wasn’t clear to her at first whether mandating such treatment made much of a difference because there were still so many repeat offenders who come before the court year in and year out. In her first years as a judge, she didn’t know if individuals in treatment programs “were in the corner coloring adult coloring books the entire time” or actually getting help, she said.
From her bench, she could only see that even though a box for completion of treatment was checked off, she often saw the same individuals back before her.
Now, Rodgers said she takes a more active role in instigating and overseeing substance use disorder treatment for the defendants who come before her so she knows which programs work and which don’t for different situations. She believes the new continuity in the state’s correctional system, from initial intake to a person’s release, has also improved people’s chances of entering recovery instead of cycling back into the system.
“Unfortunately, it took so many people dying from opioid use and misuse to get to the point that everybody is now, working together to address a much, much bigger problem,” she said.
Michael DiLauro, director of Legislative Initiatives at the Public Defender’s office, has been at the heart of such efforts to treat opioid use as a public health issue.
“Really what it boils down to is you don’t just represent a case, you represent a client,” he said. “And you address underlying issues that result in criminal behavior."
In 2017, DiLauro was involved in passing part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), which led to several probation-related policy changes to require a risk and needs assessment to inform probation decisions. The JRI also implemented training programs for probation and parole officers to better recognize symptoms of substance use and mental health issues.
At the time, Rhode Island had the second-highest probation rate in the United States, and more than half of Rhode Islanders on probation were unsupervised, increasing the likelihood of recidivism, according to the Governor's office. In 2017, Rhode Island’s criminal justice system had 1 in every 20 adult males and 1 in every 6 adult Black males on probation.
Repeat offenders often find themselves back in the system precisely because they’ve violated their probation, DiLauro said. And those with substance use disorders often incur other, non-drug related charges. This makes it more likely that those with substance use disorders will find themselves back in the system.
Though the percentage of defendants charged with drug offenses who are repeat offenders has decreased from an all-time high of 91 percent in 1998, still, more than two-thirds of those charged with drug offenses in 2019 were repeat offenders.
But Neronha is hopeful that things are moving in the right direction. He has assigned a group of young lawyers to his drug unit whom he has entrusted to continue the shift in approach to prosecuting drug cases in the direction of a rehabilitative model.
“We understand that there are failures along the way,” said Neronha. “I don't like the approach that you get one shot."
In addition to doing more to prevent people from entering the system in the first place, Neronha said he is also trying to retroactively help those who have already been sucked in.
Neronha has held several expungement clinics since taking office, where hundreds of individuals have shown up to clear past arrests and criminal convictions from their records, granting them a clean slate.
“And until you see the face of somebody for whom it really matters,” he said, “you can’t, I think, appreciate how important that is.”
Editor’s note: The raw data this story was based on was purchased by Brown University from the Rhode Island Judiciary. The data was analyzed by Lena Renshaw, a computer science concentrator and teaching assistant who graduated from Brown in May 2020, and Hal Triedman, another computer science concentrator and TA who graduated from Brown in December 2020. Their work was reviewed by the head of Brown’s Computer Science Department, Ugur Cetintemel. The student reporters and their professor, Tracy Breton, would like to thank Wendy Imondi, the director of the Judicial Records Center, and her staffers Anthony Gaglione, Bryon Allgood, Joseph Branca, Chrissy Mangual and Emanuel Quezada for their enormous assistance with this project. Without their help during the coronavirus pandemic, when the Records Center was closed to the public, we would never have been able to cull through case files to complete this project or capture the stories of the repeat offenders who keep circulating through the criminal justice system.