Having studied political science in college, I have learned much about the process of drafting, introducing, and passing bills. But it is one thing to read about it in textbooks and listen to lectures. It is certainly another to be an active participant in the process. I had exactly that opportunity in my internship with the ACLU of Washington.
Before a legislative session begins, the ACLU-WA works with allies in preparation for bills. I worked on two of our priority measures: HB 1126 which would permit injunctions against individuals whom police say are gang members (opposed by the ACLU), and SB 5456 which would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole (supported by the ACLU). I compiled letters from allied organizations, written testimonies, and informational materials for legislative committee members and staff. Beyond their positions, I learned specifically why community groups opposed or supported legislation.
I also got to watch how the bills progressed during the session. At a hearing for the anti-gang bill, the room was nearly overflowing with people, both supporting and opposing the bill. It was very interesting to watch the interactions between representatives and testifiers. It was particularly moving to see former gang members testifying against the bill, because they could speak firsthand about its effects. They opposed the anti-gang bill because policies like it “will only push [them] deeper” into gang life instead of offering ways out. They had found a way out of gang life through a jail chaplain, who also testified about his experience working with gang-involved youth. He explained that it is prevention and intervention programs that work, not “suppression” tactics like the anti-gang bill.
I attended my first public hearing on a bill that would replace the death penalty with life without parole. I was familiar with most of the testifiers’ stories beforehand, having worked with many of them and their organizations in preparation for the hearings. However, actually seeing the family members of murder victims tell their stories was extremely moving. While these people have had to tell their story countless times, their frustration and even pain was still discernible. Some of our allies support the bill because the death penalty conflicts with their religious views. Others affected firsthand by the murder of a loved one cannot achieve closure when the details of their loss are repeatedly replayed through a lengthy death sentence appeals process.
By the end of the special session, the anti-gang bill had not made it out of committee. But the ACLU and our allies will have to be ready when legislators reconsider the bill, or a new version, next session.
The bill to replace the death penalty made more progress this year than similar bills have in the past, which is hopeful. It was only one vote shy of passing out of committee. Because it was reintroduced during the special session, next year it will be heard again; we are hopeful that it will make it out of committee to the Senate floor.
Ultimately, for both bills, it was rewarding to see all the people with whom we have been working so hard come together. They did what was most important: telling their own stories. The experience of attending a hearing also made the legislative process much more tangible for me. I encourage everyone who can find the time to go see the legislative session unfold first-hand. You may see your state a little differently afterwards.
If you’re interested in having the terrific experience of being an intern for the ACLU-WA, check out the opportunities in the “Careers” section of our website.