Annual conference gathers 100, including members of clergy, to discuss criminal justice reform

Deacon Keith McKenzie, executive director of the Kentucky Criminal Justice Forum, left, and Amanda Hall of the ACLU, presented a workshop on “Grassroots efforts and data in community transformation” at the eighth annual Reaching Individuals: Behind and Beyond the Bars Conference held virtually April 9. (Photos Special to The Record)

During the eighth annual Reaching Individuals: Behind and Beyond the Bars Conference April 9, Deacon Keith McKenzie described how the work of a grassroots group can lead to positive change for individuals affected by the criminal justice system.

About 100 people, including clergy of the Archdiocese of Louisville, gathered for the virtual event. Father John Burke, a retired priest of the archdiocese, delivered the invocation. He prayed for God’s mercy on individuals affected by the criminal justice system and on those who minister to them.

Deacon McKenzie, who serves at St. Augustine Church, and Amanda Hall of the ACLU of Kentucky presented a workshop on “Grassroots efforts and data in community transformation.”

Deacon McKenzie is the executive director of the Kentucky Criminal Justice Forum, a grassroots non-profit whose mission is to understand the needs of individuals re-entering society and share those needs with local and state legislators.

Hall and Deacon McKenzie said one of the issues their work has shed light on is that former inmates are having trouble adjusting to life after incarceration because they lack an identification card upon release.

Hall, who serves as a Smart on Crime field organizer for the ACLU, said, “Identification cards are a huge issue and barrier for folks returning.”

Without identification, individuals cannot obtain housing or employment. Based on this information, Hall said Metro United Way launched a “Liberation Identification” campaign last fall to implement a statewide program that will provide a state-issued photo identification card to each individual coming out of incarceration.

She noted that since the campaign was launched, a pilot program has been implemented in three state prisons, including the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women in Shelby County, Western Kentucky Correctional Complex in Lyon County and Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex in Morgan County. The identification program is also being implemented in the Warren County Regional Jail.

Gathering information and other data about issues such as this one is critical to bringing about change, said Deacon McKenzie.

Through the Kentucky Criminal Justice Forum, he organizes panel discussions that bring together state and local legislators, individuals who work in the criminal justice system, individuals who’ve been incarcerated and family members of incarcerated people, he said.

The discussions are documented and shared with state legislators with the hope that they will change laws affecting the criminal justice system.

“Data doesn’t have to be complex. It can be rudimentary and basic and still be powerful,” said Deacon McKenzie. “Legislators can decide not to value or use your data but you have to have it when you walk through the door.”

Deacon McKenzie said he was pleased to report that information KCJF has collected over the last two years has helped lead to the passage of six criminal justice reform bills. Those bills were passed in March by the Kentucky General Assembly.

KCJF worked on these bills as part of a coalition that also includes the Catholic Conference of Kentucky — which represents the commonwealth’s four bishops in matters of public policy — and a dozen other organizations. Together, they’re known as the Kentucky Smart on Crime Coalition.

KCJF has held events in Louisville, Owensboro and Berea, Ky., since the group formed in 2018.

Its next panel discussion is planned for May 6 and 7 in Lexington, Ky., where Bishop John Stowe of Lexington will deliver a keynote address.

Due to the pandemic, the April 9 conference was held on the Zoom video conferencing platform, but followed a similar format as in years past with a keynote address and breakout sessions. This year’s theme was “Holistic Transformation.”

The conference was sponsored by Mission Behind Bars and Beyond, Inc., and other groups including Catholic Charities of Louisville and the Kentucky Criminal Justice Forum.

The conference also included a keynote address by Shameka Parrish-Wright, who serves as operations manager at The Bail Project, a non-profit that advocates for bail reform. Other workshops included “Virtual prison ministry during the pandemic,” “Individual transformation through contemplative practice” and “Developing culturally responsive reentry services.”

To learn more about the Reaching Individuals: Behind and Beyond the Bars Conference, visit www.missionbehindbarsandbeyond.org.

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