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Louisville Group Makes Case For Criminal Justice Reform

A local, faith-based group is pushing to reform certain elements of Louisville's criminal justice system.

The group, Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together -- or CLOUT, presented their priorities Monday during a round-table discussion with Metro Council members, police officials, prosecutors and local nonprofit leaders.

They want to change the perception and practice of how residents with mental health issues are funneled through the criminal justice system, said Chris Finzer, a spokesman.

Specifically, Finzer said the group wants fewer people living with mental health issues to be taken to jail or the emergency room.

"Besides being the humane thing to do, it makes sense financially," he said.

The group's four-point plan includes support for police-related programming -- like the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion initiative, which directs low-level offenders to treatment rather than jail.

Additionally, CLOUT members call for a more robust de-escalation training model for officers responding to people "in mental health crisis," according to a report from the group.

Moreover, the group supports the Living Room Project for residents struggling with mental health issues or addiction. This program, which received funding in the city's most recent budget, serves as an alternative to jail and the emergency room by providing space for residents to seek temporary support services, like food, shelter and counseling.

Lastly, the group is pushing for an expansion of the local drug court program, which provides a substance abuse treatment in lieu of jail time for eligible offenders.

Jefferson County District Judge Stephanie Burke, who attended the discussion, said presently, participation in drug court programming is at about half capacity.

The reason, she said, is sometimes defense attorneys have a negative perception of the program.

"I've had attorneys tell me 'drug court is for criminals, my client isn't a criminal,'" she said. "That's actually backwards, drug court is for addicts who end up in the criminal system due to their addiction."

She said an expansion of the program could help reduce recidivism among some offenders and assist in efforts to combat the epidemic of addiction.

"We're offering services they can't get otherwise," she said.

Louisville Metro Police Major Frank Harbison said he supports the group's agenda.

He sees the requests not as a fundamental change in policing, but rather a means to give officers "more tools to make better, informed decisions on the best way to serve the citizens."

"These programs have been researched and studied," he said. "By using wisdom and reviewing the risks versus the gain, I think they could be positive."

Finzer, the group's spokesman, said Monday's meeting was the first in a series of discussions planned around the reform effort.

The biggest hurdle, he said, is funding.

He declined to comment on whether the group would also back any tax reform measures aimed at generating new revenue -- saying instead, the group is more focused on reallocating existing funds to focus less on incarceration and more on treatment.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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