Rhode Island Felony Crimes and Sentences

Learn how felony sentencing works in Rhode Island, when you might get probation instead of imprisonment, and when the law requires sentence enhancements.

In Rhode Island, felonies are any crimes that may be punished by imprisonment for more than a year and/or a fine of more than $1,000. Crimes with lesser potential punishments are misdemeanors in Rhode Island. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-1-2 (2020).)

Read on to learn how judges determine the sentence to impose for a felony.

How Felony Sentencing Works in Rhode Island

Unlike many states, Rhode Island doesn't group felonies into different classes for purposes of sentencing. Rather, the state's criminal laws spell out the maximum sentence for each felony—and sometimes a minimum sentence.

In general, it's up to the judge to decide on the appropriate sentence for a felony, within the legal limits for the crime involved. For the most common felonies, however, Rhode Island has sentencing guidelines (or "benchmarks") for judges to use when they're making that decision. Judges shouldn't depart from the "presumptive sentence" in these guidelines unless they find that "substantial and compelling circumstances" call for a different sentence. Those circumstances could include the defendant's background, criminal history, motivation, and feelings about the crime (such as remorse), as well as the harm to the victim. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 12-19.3-2, 12-19.3-3 (2020).)

The sentencing benchmarks give a range of imprisonment terms for the listed crimes; sometimes, the same crime will show different presumptive sentences, depending on certain circumstances. For instance, the statutory sentence for breaking and entering a dwelling without consent is at least two years and not more than 10 years for a first offense, and/or a fine of up to $10,000. The benchmarks show different sentences when:

  • the defendant had a close relationship with the victim (punishment without incarceration or up to one year imprisonment)
  • the defendant and the victim had no relationship (up to 18 months incarceration)
  • the dwelling wasn't occupied (one to four years)
  • the crime happened during the day when the dwelling was occupied (four to eight years), or
  • the crime happened at night when the dwelling was occupied (seven to 10 years).

The benchmark sentence ranges represent time in a correctional facility. As discussed below, judges may suspend all or part of a sentence and put the defendant on probation. If a statute calls for a mandatory minimum sentence, and the benchmark range starts below that, the actual incarceration term may be less than the mandatory minimum as long as the total sentence is at least that long—even though part of the total sentence may be suspended. (You can find a link to the most recent sentencing benchmarks on the Rhode Island Superior Court website.)

Alternatives to Incarceration for Felonies in Rhode Island

Several felonies allow a judge to impose a fine instead of or in addition to a term in a correctional facility. Judges may also choose one or more other alternatives to incarceration as part of or instead of the legal sentence for certain crimes—typically, nonviolent first offenses. These alternatives include:

  • probation with conditions, with or without a suspended sentence
  • allowing the defendant to continue working or pursuing an education, combined with confinement in a minimum security facility during nonworking or nonstudy hours; and
  • placement in "community confinement" (often known as house arrest or home detention) with intensive supervision

Along with any other penalties, the judge may also order the defendant to pay restitution, either in the form of a monetary payment or some type of community restitution. (R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 12-19-2, 12-19-13, 12-19-32 (2020).)

Sentence Enhancements for Felonies in Rhode Island

Rhode Island law calls for sentence enhancements under certain conditions, including:

  • Habitual criminals: up to 25 years incarceration in addition to the sentence for the most recent crime when the defendant had two previous felony convictions with sentences of incarceration.
  • Hate crimes: an additional term of one to five years (but no more than double the original penalty for the crime) when the defendant selected the victim out of animosity toward the victim's actual or perceived disability, religion, race, national origin or ancestry, sexual orientation, or gender.

(R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 12-19-21, 12-19-38 (2020).)

Examples of Felonies and Sentence Ranges in Rhode Island

To give you an idea of the range of statutory sentences for felonies in Rhode Island (as well as the presumptive sentences, when they're in the sentencing benchmarks), here are just a few examples:

  • Felony assault or battery: The statutory penalty is up to six years if the defendant used a dangerous weapon, or up to 20 years if the crime resulted in serious bodily injury; the presumptive sentence is 12-18 months if the defendant used a knife or gun but the victim was injured slightly or not at all, or four to five years if there was a serious injury.
  • First-degree sexual assault: The statutory penalty is at least ten years, up to life in prison; the presumptive sentence is 10-15 years for one count with no injury, or over 20 years with aggravating circumstances such as excessive violence.
  • Felony DUI resulting in death: The statutory penalty for a first offense is five to 15 years imprisonment, plus a fine of $5,000-$10,000 and a five-year license suspension; the presumptive sentence is three to 10 years.
  • Illegal drug possession: The statutory penalty for possession of a controlled substance other than marijuana is up to three years and/or a $500-$1,500 fine; the presumptive sentence is less than jail for possession of a small quantity.

(R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 11-5-2, 11-37-2, 11-37-3, 21-28-4.01(b), 31-27-2.2 (2020).)

When Misdemeanors Become Felonies

Some crimes that are misdemeanors for a first offense—such as reckless driving and shoplifting—are treated as felonies in Rhode Island when the defendant already has at least one prior conviction for the same crime. (R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 11-41-20, 31-27-4 (2020).)

Getting Legal Help

A felony conviction can have long-lasting, serious consequences. Even after you've served the sentence, having a felony on your record could make it difficult to get a job, find housing, or qualify for some government benefits. If you have been arrested, charged with a crime, or approached by police and investigators, you should speak to a Rhode Island criminal defense lawyer immediately. An experienced attorney can help you navigate the criminal justice system, negotiate a favorable plea bargain if that's appropriate, protect your rights, and help you reach the best outcome possible under the circumstances.

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