Andrea Arthur has been in recovery from drug addiction for eight years and has a criminal conviction in her history for drug charges. While Arthur was in substance abuse treatment and began looking for work, the treatment provider gave her a list of businesses that would hire people with felony records.

"For me, that was gut-wrenching, because it was placing me in a box I was working so hard to get out of," Arthur told an audience of about 100 people Friday at the second of three state criminal justice forums.

Friday's forum was held at the H.L. Neblett Center in Owensboro. The first forum was held in Louisville, and the third forum is scheduled to be in Berea.

Arthur said she has been able to get several jobs at businesses that weren't on the list by being honest with hiring directors about her past and asking for an opportunity to prove herself.

"They took a chance on me because I was 100 percent honest," Arthur said. "Taking a chance on one felon proves we are not all bad" and could lead to that business hiring another person with a felony record in the future, she said.

One of the goals of Friday's forum on criminal justice reform was to hear from people like Arthur who have experienced incarceration and the challenges people with felony records face when trying to reenter society.

Susan Montalvo-Gesser, director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Owensboro, said the information gathered from participants would be given to the Legislative Research Commission for lawmakers to use when crafting criminal justice reform bills.

The forum included experts in the criminal justice field, but Gesser said it was equally important "to get input from people whose voices usually aren't heard."

Jobs and reentering society were only part of the discussion. It also included how people can be diverted from incarceration by the courts, access to substance abuse and mental health treatment as an alternative to incarceration, and sentencing reform.

Julius Maddox is a staff member at Friends of Sinners, an Owensboro substance abuse treatment facility. Maddox was a client at one time and had a history of drug charges.

"One of the obstacles I went through (during treatment) was employment," Maddox said. "When you fill out a (job) application, your expectations are high ... and then they come back in with a different demeanor and look on their face because you're a felon. There's no light at the end of the tunnel."

Maddox said for people with felony histories, they have trouble not only finding jobs but securing housing. "It seems like we pay our debt to society, and we have to live with it for the rest of our lives," he said.

Rep. Jason Petrie, an Elkton Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told the audience that the state needs to have a different attitude on criminal justice.

"What criminal justice is about ... is punishing bad acts, but assisting the person," Petrie said. When asked about the availability of mental health treatment in county jails as opposed to prisons, and what can be done to help mentally ill inmates, Petrie and Rep. Jim Glenn, an Owensboro Democrat, said more needs to be done to provide mental health care.

"We use police as mental health workers, and that's not right," Glenn said. "Society, for some reason, will not spend money" to expand mental health care.

Petrie said the state needs to talk about mental health issues. People with substance abuse disorders and mental health issues "have to be dealt with differently than bad criminal acts," he said.

Daviess District Judge Lisa Payne Jones said Kentucky recognized there were severe problems in its juvenile justice system that led to low-level offenders going to jail and enacted reforms. The state needs to take the same approach to the adult criminal justice system, she said.

"First, we must accept that this experiment in mass incarceration has failed," Jones said. "... Although crime rates are down in general, rates of incarceration remain high," and people who have been to prison have high rates of recidivism.

Court officials should "encourage the use of diversion and specialty courts" and provide reentry services for people leaving prisons, Jones said. In the absence of mental health and substance abuse treatment, incarceration has become the alternative.

"Our criminal justice system is overloaded with people who have high needs but are not high-risk," Jones said.

Although many proposed solutions would cost money, some could be done at no cost, Gesser said. The state's expungement law, for example, could be expanded at no cost.

Keeping the status quo would cost the state "in all the human capital we lose," Gesser said.

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

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