Agencies to hold community conversation on criminal justice reform

Susan Montalvo-Gesser

On Tuesday, 23,991 people were incarcerated for felony convictions in Kentucky prisons and jails.

Susan Montalvo-Gesser, director of Owensboro Catholic Charities, said Kentucky's prison population includes the second-highest population of female inmates of anywhere in the United States.

"We are one of only eight states in the United States to see their prison population rise in 2018," Montalvo-Gesser said Tuesday.

The high number of Kentuckians with felony records affects the state in ways that may not be immediately obvious. For example, a person with a felony record can't vote without an expungement, which isn't available to everyone, or without receiving a pardon from the governor's office.

As a result, 26 percent of black Kentuckians can't vote, Montalvo-Gesser said. Having a felony record also has a damaging effect on a person's ability to get a decent job.

On Oct. 25, the Kentucky Criminal Justice Forum and the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet will host a community conversation on criminal justice issues from 1 to 4 p.m. at the H.L. Neblett Community Center, 501 W. Fifth St.

The event is open to everyone and will include information from state legislators who work on criminal justice issues and Daviess District Judge Lisa Payne Jones. The idea is to hear from people who have been incarcerated and from their families.

"Our focus is to get the voices heard that are seldom heard," Montalvo-Gesser said at an announcement at St. Pius X Catholic Church.

The event won't be a lecture, with the audience sitting and listening to a panel of speakers. Instead, the forum will include break-out sessions where people will discuss criminal justice topics. The topics include sentencing reform; entry into the prison system and diversion from prison; re-entry into society after being incarcerated; and access to health care and mental health treatment.

This is the second community conversation on criminal justice reform this year. The first was held in July in Louisville, and a third conference is scheduled to be held in Berea.

Montalvo-Gesser said the group wants to look at issues facing people with felony records and their families, such as whether people leaving prison who need mental health treatment can find help, and what changes can be made in the law that would help people with felonies successfully return to society.

The focus on families would include what happens to children when a parent is incarcerated, Montalvo-Gesser said.

The information gathered at the forums will be given to the Legislative Research Commission, the state agency that helps legislators in Frankfort. The information will be useful in helping legislators craft criminal justice bills for the 2020 General Assembly session, Montalvo-Gesser said.

People who have experienced incarceration, as well as their family members, are an important part of the conversation, she said.

The forum organizers want to hear "people's experiences -- what worked well for you, and what do you wish had been the experience," Montalvo-Gesser said. "What in your experience was good, and can the bad things be fixed to make them better?"

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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