An unprecedented collection of drug policy stakeholders - including judges, elected officials, public health workers, law enforcement, and community advocates - will come together to chart a new course for Louisiana's drug policies at New Directions New Orleans on Thursday April 2 from 9am-5pm at Dillard University.
The one-day conference will provide Louisianans with the opportunity to engage many of the leading minds on drug policy and criminal justice reform from across the country and around the world, who will discuss strategies for moving beyond drug war policies and toward a health-centered approach to drug use.
"Louisiana continues to strive to become a more population health focused state, but one of the outstanding issues we face are antiquated drug and criminal justice policies," said Joe Kimbrell, CEO, Louisiana Public Health Institute (LPHI). "This collaborative conference will be a strong starting point for these extraordinary partners to begin outlining what new policies and best practices we can utilize to educate our policymakers and create a safer, healthier Louisiana."
The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world - and Louisiana has the highest rate in the U.S. Louisiana's incarceration rate has doubled in the last twenty years and is nearly five times higher than Iran's, 13 times higher than China's and 20 times higher than Germany's. One of the key drivers of Louisiana's world-leading incarceration rate is the war on drugs -- 18,000 Louisiana residents are arrested for drug law violations each year.
"The drug war has been a catastrophic war on the people of Louisiana," said Yolande Cadore, director of strategic partnerships at the Drug Policy Alliance. "This gathering is bringing key stakeholders together to find an exit strategy for this failed war on drugs. The time for a new direction in Louisiana is now."
According to a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, Louisiana suffers from some of the worst racial disparities in marijuana enforcement of any state in the U.S. Black Louisianans are arrested for marijuana possession at 3 times the rate as their white counterparts, despite the fact that black and white people use and sell marijuana at similar rates.
"Last year Louisiana residents said they oppose long sentences for marijuana possession," said Marjorie Esman, executive director, ACLU of Louisiana. "Our laws are unfair, enforced selectively, and they don't reflect what the public wants. It's time to rethink Louisiana's approach to marijuana sentencing."
Louisiana also has a draconian habitual offender law that results in outrageously long mandatory minimum sentences. Bernard Noble, a father of seven, is serving 13 years behind bars after he was arrested for possessing 2 joints of marijuana. Mr. Noble had two prior minor drug offenses more than 10 years earlier and because of Louisiana's habitual offender law, the "third strike" gave him a mandatory sentence of 13 years of hard labor behind bars.
"Our clients and New Orleans deserve a fair and just criminal justice system; a system free from bias and presumptions of guilt," said Derwyn Bunton, Chief Public Defender, Orleans Public Defenders. "We also need alternatives to incarceration, not more jail beds, for those most in need."
"I know first-hand the pain and loneliness associated with imprisonment," said Norris Henderson, executive director of the Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE). "Lawmakers should think long and hard about our state's drug laws. Our prisons are filled with people who shouldn't be there. We need to reform our inhumane laws and reunite families and rebuild communities."
More than a hundred stakeholders will come together at the conference to discuss topics such as:
- Drug Laws, Incarceration and Sentencing Reform in Louisiana
- Envisioning New Marijuana policies in Louisiana: Making A Case for Sensible Marijuana Reform
- Effective Strategies for Addressing Problematic Drug Use in Louisiana
- Louisiana's Drug War and the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Conference speakers include:
- U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite (Eastern District of Louisiana)
- Rep. Joe Lopinto, Republican State Representative, Metairie, Member of the House Criminal Justice Committee
- Senator J.P. Morrell, Louisiana State Senate, District 3
- Susan Guidry, Councilmember, District A, New Orleans City Council
- Jason Williams, Councilmember-At-Large, New Orleans City Council
- Joseph Kimbrell, CEO, Louisiana Public Health Institute
- Dr. Wodajo Welldaregay, Chair, Dillard University School of Public Health
- Norris Henderson, Executive Director, Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE)
- Marjorie Esman, Executive Director, ACLU of Louisiana
- Gina Womack, Executive Director, Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children
- Deon Haywood, Executive Director, Women With A Vision
- Gregory Thompson, Attorney and sentencing reform advocate
- Kevin Kane, President, Pelican Institute
- Judge Fredericka Homberg Wicker, Louisiana 5th Circuit Court of Appeals
- Craig DeRoche, President, Justice Fellowship
- Thomas J. Donovan, State Attorney, Chittenden, Vermont
- Dr. Carl Hart, Associate Professor, department of Psychology and Psychiatry, Columbia University, and author of High Price
- Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director, Drug Policy Alliance