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Monday, August 4, 2008

Gathering seeks ways to ease inmates back into society

Local leaders discussed the issue and different approaches to ease the transition during yesterday's kickoff of the National Forum on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, which continues through tomorrow at the Marriott Louisville Downtown.

The forum, whose theme is "No More Victims -- Standing Up to Violent Crime," will have workshops on various topics, including gang violence, campus security and using technology to fight crime.

Yesterday's presentation focused on partnerships between local, state and federal agencies.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Louisville Metro Re-entry Task Force, said his group began by identifying resources in the community and getting different agencies to communicate.

"No one had tried to do that effectively," Smith said. "Everyone seemed to be acting independently."

The task force also created a round-the-clock hot line for former inmates to call for help with social services, emotional support, substance abuse treatment and other issues.

"It's incumbent upon all of us to give people a fair chance to succeed," Smith said.

Mayor Jerry Abramson, who was the moderator of yesterday's presentation, said about 2,000 Louisvillians are released from incarceration annually, and almost half of them come from the six ZIP codes: 40203, 40210, 40211, 40212, 40213 and 40218.

Yesterday's other main speaker, the Rev. Roosevelt Lightsy Jr., is community liaison for the Newburg Justice Reinvestment Pilot Project.

Lightsy, who is working with local organizations and clergy in the Newburg area, said inmates have a lot to deal with upon release.

"How do you come home to a family that you have devastated?" he asked. "How do you keep motivated and positive" and avoid backsliding into old behaviors?

One possible solution Lightsy has developed is a community garden project. It allows the Newburg Youth Council, which Lightsy and his fellow activists also developed, to work with ex-inmates tending a vegetable garden.

He said the project is a valuable experience and common ground for the ex-inmates and the youths, many of whom have relatives in prison.

Lightsy's program also helps ex-inmates find housing, jobs and support services, such as mental health counseling and substance-abuse treatment.

If the Newburg effort succeeds, it has the potential to be used in other areas. [Mark Godsey]

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