Back from the Innocence Network Conference (and I have some thoughts…)

Another year, another Innocence Network Conference. And as always, it was a great experience. This year, more than 900 (!) people gathered in Atlanta to celebrate victories and discuss new directions in the fight for justice.

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(Above: The exoneree stage at the Innocence Network Conference. The new exonerees at this year’s meeting collectively spent 1,070 years incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.)

This was my fourth IN Conference and even in the short period I’ve been attending (since 2013), it’s grown tremendously. Yet, somehow, it has managed to maintain an impressive feeling of intimacy. The ability to connect with others – exonerees, their supporters, lawyers, advocates, and more – is unparalleled at any academic conference I’ve attended. In fact, I firmly believe academic conferences can learn a thing or two from meetings like this. Drop the pretentious air and ego-maniacal falsehood of academic fame and importance, embrace the truth that we are non-objective observers and participants in the worlds we inhabit and in which we work, and connect with people who feel deeply and passionately about what they do. Perhaps we can, and should, stop pretending to be neutral and passive observers following pure scientific principles, accept that we have our own biases and agendas, and use our passions, energy, and expertise to change the world around us for the better.

None of this is to say that the conference or those who attend are flawless. It’s not, and we’re not. But those of us within academia might just benefit from observing meetings such as this one, of people who do work for the public good, who advocate for social, political, and criminal justice. Perhaps it would improve our scholarship rather than reduce its quality, or increase the impact that we have as experts in our respective fields. (Real impact, that is, not the impact factors we tend to brag about.)

Every time I’ve attended the IN Conference, I’ve left inspired and energized. Usually, this translates to a period of furious scholarly writing during the home-stretch of the semester. Not so, this time. Certainly, I’m inspired by those who attended; I’d dare anyone to meet some of these folks and not be. But this year, it won’t translate to a productive stretch of academic scholarship for me. Instead, I find myself inspired to think not about new scientific research questions or study designs, or how to maximize my tenure prospects, but about issues that are much bigger and more important.

I had the opportunity to meet several exonerees who spent more than thirty years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. They were incarcerated longer than I’ve been alive. I find it impossible to meet those individuals, hear their stories, imagine what they experienced, and not think existentially, about life, and about freedom, and about how we far too often take those things for granted. And they inspire me to think about how I’ve spent my own life to this point and how I spend the rest of it. I’m inspired to think about what I can and should do with the time that remains; how I can be different, be better; how I can maximize my experience for myself and, hopefully, for others.

Hopefully, I’ll have more to share soon.

A quick aside on Atlanta as a conference venue:

The first time I went to Atlanta for a conference (funny enough, in 2013), I hated it. I thought it was just the worst on the list of ASC host cities. But in the past year, I’ve traveled there three times for different types of work-related trips, and I must admit that I was unfair to the city. While I still have no desire to live there myself – it’s far too hot for me – I’ve enjoyed my visits, and look forward to the next one. Below are some random, not-so-high-quality cell phone photos from my walk around Centennial Olympic Park on Saturday morning and my self-guided brewery tour.

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