Though it's been quite a few years since I've made the trek, I love the drive to New Orleans from Texas. After you get past Houston, even well before you get to the Sabine River marking the border with Louisiana, it's easy to forget how much water gushes down toward the Gulf of Mexico in the stretch of country between Harris County and Baton Rouge, where you finally cross the Mississippi. I took a book on CD - Bob Dylan's autobiography read by Sean Penn (a beautifully and vividly written piece of prose, but with disappointingly vapid content) - and enjoyed the scenic if uneventful drive by myself, about nine hours each direction.
Though I didn't do any blogging from N'awlins, Pete Guither over at Drug War Rant, with whom I was pleased to get to finally meet and shake hands after reading his online work for years, has been writing like a fiend from the event, publishing notes from darn near everything he attended, so I'd refer you to his coverage for a substantive overview of the conference. Here's a pic of Pete and his conference entries so far:
- Thursday Morning - (Opening Plenary)
- Thursday Noon - (Costa)
- Thursday Evening - (Dream About a Reefer)
- Friday morning - (Building Momentum in Congress)
- Friday afternoon - (Elevator Arguments and other things)
- New Orleans Food Blogging
- Saturday Morning - (Europe)
- Saturday Noon - (Stop Snitching)
- Saturday Afternoon - (Beyond Prohibition)
- Closing Plenary
I was also pleased meet and visit with a local NOLA community activist, Norris Henderson, who appears to be doing important work with a group called Safe Streets, Strong Communities. Though this blog focuses on crime and punishment issues in Texas, you could spend a lifetime writing about what's wrong with the justice system in our neighbor to the East. Couple existing, well-documented jail and police problems with the mass destruction of records and evidence in the floodwaters, combined with the decline in tax base to support adequate police, prosecution and especially public defender services. Mix in a corruption-riddled state and local governments, spice with indifferent federal support, and you get an ill-flavored gumbo of a criminal justice system, only made nastier after the floodwalls broke. Hearing war stories from folks in NOLA about police misconduct and prison conditions reminded me that, despite Texas' reputation, there are quite a few states who would look just as bad underneath the intense daily spotlight I try to put on Texas' system. Louisiana, California, Illinois, Alabama, Georgia, Florida - many of the critiques of Texas justice could just as easily be made in other arenas, and Louisiana is a prime candidate.
I met several folks who I only ever knew online, including Jeannette Irwin who blogs over at the Drug Policy Alliance's D'Alliance blog (which has also been featuring updates from the conference, though less prolifically than Pete). David Borden of DRCNet (at right) is another fellow I got to meet in person whose web work I've read and linked to throughout Grits' three-year existence. His weekly compilation of drug-related law enforcement corruption frequently includes Texas cases that relate to topics covered on this blog. Loretta Nall from Alabama (pictured with yours truly at left) is somebody else I've been in contact with for several years online but had never met face to face.
Having just blogged about Jason Zeidenberg's latest research project from the Justice Policy Institute, it was good to run into him (pictured at left). He encouraged me to dig deeper into the data in JPI's latest report, declaring there were a lot more Texas-specfic goodies there for a student of drug policy.
It was great to see all these folks and many more at the conference, but part of the reason I'd prefer not to give a blow by blow is that some of what I heard was disheartening. As many people out there as are doing great work on drug policy, more than at any time in my adult lifetime, the movement still too often suffers from an odd tendency to embrace its fringe status rather than seriously try to change it. That's not universally true, by a longshot, and one of the reasons I have a lot of respect for DPA is that the group actually tries to win instead of reveling in a sense of moral superiority. They're out there trying to convince opponents and fence-sitters from across the ideological spectrum to support smarter, less expensive policies, a tactic that to me should be no-brainer. I often think that drug policy reformers frequently lose because they go into every battle assuming they'll lose, and more than a few of the folks I spoke to in New Orleans reinforced that sense.
Meanwhile, a lot of the professional class - public health officials, progressive DAs like Craig Watkins in Dallas, more than a few judges from both parties, and many from the defense bar - are pursuing ideas like drug courts and an array of other drug policy reforms. Those hands-on interests were underrepresented in a conference filled with breakout sessions on anti-racist organizing and drug policy reformers against the middle-east war. A disappointing breakout session on "snitching" treated as a great revelation that "snitch" is not a synonym for "witness," but offered no solutions to the problem, only complaints. How you could have such a panel without including any of the folks working on the issue from the Innocence Project angles who actually propose reforms to fix the problem is beyond me.
In any event, though I enjoyed visiting with a lot of folks and meeting some new people - I even enjoyed a few days' break from the blog - it was good to get home to see the missus and the dogs. Though I've enjoyed a few days respite, I'll get back into regular blogging habits, perhaps, beginning tomorrow.
UPDATE: See more on the conference from Thinking Outside the Cage, the Transform blog, and from Ethan Brown, whose new book "Snitch" I'll be reviewing on Grits soon. I'd hoped to get an interview with Ethan, but had an equipment malfunction then scheduling conflicts - his work was definitely the highlight of the panel on informant abuses, along with Regina Kelly who was a central victim of a mendacious informant in the scandal in Hearne, TX. I'm looking forward to reading Brown's new book.