U.S. Attorney Neronha promotes efforts to keep ex-convicts out of prison

June 16, 2011 - 10:37am

By John Hill

PROVIDENCE — Most of the time, as the federal government’s chief prosecutor for Rhode Island, U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha spends his day trying to put criminals in prison. Wednesday, he was talking about how to keep them from returning.

Neronha and his staff were in Providence and Cranston talking about efforts by state and federal agencies as well as nonprofit social-service groups and churches that were working to help newly released prison inmates adjust to life after incarceration.

At an event outside the new Oxford Street headquarters of the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, Neronha honored two specific groups, the institute and OpenDoors, a nonprofit Providence-based agency that provides job training for inmates seeking work. He said it was the work of those two groups and others that have a real chance to lower the crime rate by preventing offenders from becoming repeat offenders.

“There is tons of good work being done already by people across the state,” he said, citing groups such as OpenDoors and the institute. “It’s incredibly important, but the public doesn’t know it’s out there.”

Neronha started his Rhode Island law-enforcement career working in the Garrahy Complex handling dozens of arraignments and probation and parole violation hearings a day as a prosecutor for then-Attorney General Jeffrey Pine.

“That’s where you see the repeat offenders,” he said. “You see the same names coming up over and over again. You literally see the same people coming back time after time after time again.”

It made him realize, he said, that simply putting people in prison wasn’t the answer.

“We can’t prosecute our way out of the crime problem,” he said.

Neronha’s office has its own efforts to keep ex-convicts out of prison. For about three years, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Rose has been speaking to groups of soon-to-be-released inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston about the challenges they will face post-release.

Called “Man Up,” the program tells inmates that their lives will be harder because of their prison records but they will have to work through that.

Richard DelFino Jr., head of probation and parole for the state Department of Corrections, described reentry councils — there are five, in Newport, Providence, Westerly, Pawtucket and Coventry — that bring together public and private agencies to coordinate assistance for released inmates. They include groups that deal with housing or employment, mental-health services, food and clothing as well as churches and other faith-based organizations.

One example was the Pleasant Street Baptist Church in Westerly, he said. For years, it has been helping ex-inmates and others in need; it even has a caseworker to help people navigate the state and federal social-service bureaucracies. But with the Westerly Reentry Council, its efforts are now part of an overall release plan for each ex-inmate.

Sometimes small things can help. The Rev. Joshua McClure, pastor at Pleasant Street, said many released inmates don’t have a car or a driver’s license, so the church buys them bus tickets so they can get to and from the store, job interviews or work.

“We’ve been doing exactly the same thing for years, working with people,” Mr. McClure said. “It’s what we’ve been doing. They contacted us because we were doing it.”

jhill@projo.com

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