Raising the Age for Criminal Responsibility
Graduate School of Social Work Lobbies in Albany
Hugh Maxwell had been many things in his life: a monk, a wall street executive and now a master of social work candidate at Touro’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW). But on March 28, a windswept and gray Tuesday, in a legislative building of Albany, he found himself in a new role: lobbyist.
Sitting diagonally across from Kayleigh Metviner, a legislative aide to New York State Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, he turned his confident and convincing manner, that had once wooed clients at the Salomon Brothers investment bank, to the matter at-hand: Raise the Age, a movement to raise the minimum age for adolescents to be tried in adult criminal courts.
“Only New York and North Carolina are on the other side of the fence,” Maxwell explained, referring to the fact that only two states try 16 and 17-year-olds as adults “We need these kids back in juvenile court and the age raised to 18.”
Metviner agreed, “No one wants to be compared to North Carolina right now,” she said, alluding to the recent news that North Carolina transbathroom bill cost the state $3.7 billion.
Maxwell, together with 30 other students and faculty members of GSSW, journeyed to the state’s capital with hundreds of other social workers as part of a legislative education and advocacy day organized by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), New York State and New York City Chapters, the New York Association of Deans of Schools of Social Work, and the New York State Social Work Education Association (NYSSWEA).
“Lobbying is extremely important,” said Allison Bobick, the Director of Student Advancement at GSSW. “Things will change only if people speak up and make their voices heard. Politics won’t change unless we become advocates.”
Once there, students attended a rally about Raise the Age, where they heard from those who had been affected by the legislation. Speaker Richard Smith was imprisoned in an adult correctional facility when he was 16. A survivor of sexual abuse, Smith said that the prison experience exacerbated his trauma.
“Adult jails do not help people heal,” he told the crowd in between chants of “Raise the Age.”
Afterwards, students formed groups to meet with their legislators. Sporadically welcomed, occasionally rebuffed, for many GSSW’s students, it was their introduction to the nexus between social work and public policy: lobbying state officials to support causes that benefit social work clients and social workers as part of the state’s yearly rush to pass a budget. There were a constellation of forces driving the attending GSSW students.
GSSW alumna Marcia Crawford (2013) has come for each lobbying trip since she was a student.
“We fight for everyone,” she said.
Some, like Marilyn Donate, had come bearing their own personal connections to the issue. Her son, who was in special education classes, was imprisoned at the age of 19 and still carried scars of his prison-stint almost twenty years later as he struggled in the world.
“I just imagine a 16-year-old going through what he went through,” said Donate. “My son isn’t able to get a job because of his record. He bags groceries because there are no jobs for convicts. I would hate to see another teen life go to waste. Enough incarceration, we need more education.”
GSSW students Amanda Santillo and Benjamin Heisler both worked in schools and met children who had been imprisoned in adult jails.
“They bring it back with them,” said Santillo.
“A lot of my students suffered from sexual abuse and a lot of them act out because of that trauma,” Heisler noted. “Putting them in an adult jail just punishes them instead of helping treat them.”
Social workers also pushed for more licensing for the social work profession and the finalization of the social work reinvestment act along expansion of social work loan forgiveness for social workers who work in underserved areas.
“It’s awesome that you’re doing this,” said Mitzi Hart, legislative aide to New York State Senator Liz Krueger. Hart gave the students the names of two other legislators who could use some convincing.
“Every year it is exciting to see the students understand how to use their experiences as social workers to construct arguments, advocate for policy, speak to legislators, and find their way around the state capital,” said Dr. Jennifer Zelnick, Chair of the Social Welfare Policy Sequence at GSSW, who helped organize the lobbying trip. “Being in the company of 800 social work students from around the state also gives them a sense of the community of students and future professionals that they are part of, and strengthens their connections to our professional organizations that sponsor this event. Each year several students ask: how do I get more involved in policy? What jobs are out there for social work students? Another purpose of this event is to open up these opportunities to students, and show them that social work values and skills can provide leadership in public policy.”
At the end of the day, Maxwell said he was pleased with the efforts.
“I will do this again,” said Maxwell. “We learned about the mechanics of lobbying in class, but when you see it in person it’s a whole different ballgame.”
Next time, he said, he hoped to meet with legislators that were against whatever social workers were lobbying for.
“I want to convince them to be on our side,” he said.