Medical Professionals, Community Groups Oppose Drug Homicide Bill

May 22, 2018

Dozens of medical professionals and community groups are asking the Rhode Island Senate to delay a scheduled vote Wednesday on a bill to mandate life sentences for drug dealers in fatal overdose cases.

In a letter from The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at The Miriam Hospital, the bill’s opponents say it would have a “harmful impact’’ on efforts to address the state’s opioid crisis by imprisoning people who sell and trade drugs to support their addiction. The letter asks the Senate to send the bill back to committee for further study.

The letter’s nearly 80 signatories include the Rhode Island Medical Society,the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Hanna M. Gallo, D-Cranston, was introduced at the request of Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin. The bill -- named Kristen’s Law -- is designed to “send a strong message to drug traffickers,” Kilmartin said in a statement.

The bill is named after Kristen Coutu, a 29-year-old Cranston resident who died of an overdose in 2014. Her dealer pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and received a prison sentence of 40 years with 20 years to serve.

Rhode Island law currently mandates life sentences only for those convicted in the sale, delivery of distribution of controlled substances that result in the overdose death of a minor.

“What this bill will do is catch a bunch of small fish, a bunch of low level dealers,’’ said Dr. Jody Rich, director of The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at and one of the letter’s co-signers. “And these are predominantly people that are dealing to deal with their own habit.”

The bill was amended to exempt from prosecution anyone who “in good faith” attempts to seek medical help for someone experiencing an overdose. The amendment followed testimony during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings that the bill would subvert the intent of the Good Samaritan Law.

The bill’s revised language aims “to clarify that the intent of the legislation was to hold drug traffickers accountable,’’ Amy Kempe, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said in an email, and “to address concerns that those suffering with substance use disorders would be subject to criminal prosecution.” 

But opponents said in their letter that the amended bill’s language “exponentially widens who may be held culpable, with no attempt to focus on high-level drug traffickers.”

The letter’s co-signers include 17 organizations, 41 medical professionals, researchers and advocates and 20 Brown University medical students.