A coalition that includes the Rhode Island State Council of Churches will once again try to convince legislators to approve a series of justice reforms aimed at reducing the prison population.

Rev. Dr. Don Anderson, executive minister of the Council of Churches, said in an interview this week that the group expects to have introduced a series of six bills aimed specifically at reforming the state’s probation system as a first pass at reforms to end mass incarceration.

With 20 percent of inmates diagnosed with mental health issues, and perhaps as many going undiagnosed, Rev. Anderson suggested there are other programs that would be more effective dealing with inmates with mental issues, and programs that are less expensive than incarceration.

A first effort, Rev. Anderson said, is to reform a probation system that keeps individuals on probation “too long,” when research shows that after three years on probation recidivism drops.

In Rhode Island, he said, one in 20 male adults are on probation, and one in six African American males are on probation. Nationally, while the United States accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, its jails are among the most crowded, with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners

A year ago a similar reform effort was approved by the state Senate, but never reached the House of Representatives for a vote.

“The shallow and dismissive comments made by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello about the Justice Reinvestment package were surprising,” wrote Eugene T. Dyszelewski, chair of the Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island and community minister at the First Union Church of Providence. “The ‘soft on crime’ comment is baseless and frighteningly ill-informed. How is it ‘soft on crime’ to use evidence-based programs to reduce recidivism? Or to reduce corrections spending? Or to increase compensation to crime victims?”

Dyszelewski, in his letter last July, criticized the Speaker for suggesting that Rhode Island would “be a test case for a national model on criminal justice.” The initiative is part of the national Justice Reinvestment Initiative’s efforts, which have resulted in reforms of sentencing and corrections policies in 33 states since 2007.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is a public-private partnership that includes the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the Crime and Justice Institute, the Vera Institute of Justice, and other organizations, according to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative web site.

Frank Prosnitz

Frank Prosnitz brings to WhatsUpNewp several years in journalism, including 10 as editor of the Providence (RI) Business News and 14 years as a reporter and bureau manager at the Providence (RI) Journal. Prosnitz began his journalism career as a sportswriter at the Asbury Park (NJ) Press, moving to The News Tribune (Woodbridge, NJ), before joining the Providence Journal. Prosnitz hosts the Morning Show on WLBQ radio (Westerly), 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and It’s Your Business, also on WBLQ, Monday and Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Prosnitz has twice won Best in Business Awards from the national Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW), twice was named Media Advocate of the Year by the Small Business Administration, won an investigative reporter’s award from the New England Press Association, and newswriting award from the Rhode Island Press Association.