Despite broad opposition from the medical community, the Rhode Island Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that would mandate up to life in prison for drug dealers in fatal overdose cases.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Hanna M. Gallo, D-Cranston, was revised from mandating a life sentence to "up to" life in prison for anyone convicted in the delivery or distribution of a controlled substance “in exchange for anything of value” to an adult which results in a fatal overdose.
Rhode Island law currently mandates life sentences in those cases involving the overdose death of a minor.
The bill also was amended to exempt from prosecution anyone who “in good faith” attempts to seek medical help for someone experiencing an overdose.
The bill’s opponents – including public health experts on Governor Gina Raimondo's overdose-prevention task force -- said it would primarily catch low-level dealers and harm efforts in Rhode Island to address the state’s opioid crisis by imprisoning people who sell and trade drugs to support their addiction.
Named Kristen’s Law, the bill was introduced at the request of Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, who said it’s designed to “send a strong message to drug traffickers.’’
Sen. Gallo, the bill’s sponsor, said Kristen Coutu was a friend of her daughter. “I have personally known too many Rhode Islanders who have been devastated during this crisis, including Kristen,’’ she said in a statement. “We need to send a strong, clear message to drug dealers that people are dying as a result of their actions. They need to know that we will hold them criminally responsible for those deaths.”
A companion House bill, sponsored by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, (D-Cranston), is currently being revised to mirror the Senate bill, the attorney general’s office said in a statement.
(An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the bill's mandate.)