Heroin is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance in Rhode Island and in every other state. Schedule I controlled substances are highly addictive and have no accepted medical uses, and possessing even small quantities of them can be punished by years or even decades behind bars. Individuals found in possession of more than an ounce of heroin can be sent to prison for up to 50 years in Rhode Island, and individuals who distribute the drug can be locked up for life. In recent years, lawmakers and courts have started to take a more lenient approach.
Nolo contendere pleas
The heroin possession penalties are much lighter when defendants plead nolo contendere. Defendants who enter nolo contendere pleas accept punishment but do not admit guilt. Defendants who plead nolo contendere in heroin possession cases escape jail time if they agree to perform 100 hours of community service and enroll in a drug education program. The penalties for distributing heroin in Rhode Island are reduced when dealers are addicted to the drug. Individuals who sell heroin to make money but do not use the drug are treated more harshly.
Most of the people arrested for possessing or distributing Schedule I controlled substances like heroin are charged with felony drug crimes. In September 2021, Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee signed a bill into law that made possessing a small quantity of a Schedule I controlled substance a misdemeanor rather than a felony. The maximum penalty for possessing 10 grams or less of heroin, cocaine or fentanyl is now two years in jail. However, very few drug possession cases end with a custodial sentence. According to Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha, less than 1% of drug possession defendants are sent to jail. When they are incarcerated, they rarely spend more than 30 days behind bars.
Treatment makes more sense
It costs Rhode Island taxpayers $100,000 to keep a prisoner behind bars for a year. This is why rehabilitation and treatment make more sense in drug possession cases than fines and jail sentences. Individuals who traffic and distribute large quantities of controlled substances should face harsh sentences, but people who have become addicted to drugs are deserving of more compassion.