At this year’s Conference on Civic Engagement, Upper School students became New York state senators for a day in an effort to explore the “multiple layers of the criminal justice system in the United States.”
The full-day conference, immersive by design, consisted of a student-led opening presentation; a panel discussion with a group of criminal justice professionals with diverse expertise; interactive workshops led by students, teachers and guest speakers; small-group discussions in advisory teams; a debate on a bill aimed at ending “the use of monetary bail and improving our criminal justice system;” and, finally, a mock state Senate vote on the bill. Head of School Bodie Brizendine became Governor Brizendine for the day, presiding over the Spence Congress with the all-important task of vetoing or signing the bill into law, while student body President Alison P. ’19 became the congressional chairperson and moderated the student discussion prior to the vote.
The conference, now in its second year, was established by Brizendine to give students a “schoolwide learning experience that explores the capacity of individuals to work within complex political systems to impact positive change.” Brizendine explained that the conference was born out of a student idea to have “an annual moment of learning” in which participants consider our roles and responsibilities as individuals living in a democratic society.
This year’s conference was organized by Rebecca Hong, Spence Director of Institutional Equity; Stephen Mak, Spence History Department Head; and Michele Murphy, Spence Director of Curriculum. Seniors Chloe P., Isabelle R. and Louise W. were student leaders who helped throughout the event planning as well as on the day itself. “We also had a lot of support from the Spence community who had contacts in the non-profit and political world,” Hong noted.
According to Murphy, the program is “all about engagement, learning and listening,” as well as developing a better understanding of how our decisions have an impact on “policies that affect many lives.”
The day began with a Civics Club video presentation about the process by which a bill becomes a law and details about the proposed bill. Student presenters emphasized that there is not one criminal justice system, but multiple systems on the local, state and federal levels.
To help student senators make informed decisions about the bill, students participated in workshops on civics and heard from six of panelists with expertise in criminal justice systems, who offered varied perspectives into the complexity of the issues and helped students understand the “historical and contemporary impact of the U.S. criminal justice system on peoples and their communities.”
Guest panelists included:
- Ursula Bentele, Professor Emerita at Brooklyn Law School who previously represented defendants at trial and on appeal at The Legal Aid Society Criminal Defense Division
- Alysia Santo, writer for the Marshall Project known for her investigative reporting on the criminal justice system
- Adam Foss, executive director and founder of Prosecutor Impact, a not-for-profit organization that seeks to “stem mass incarceration”
- The Honorable Peter Krauthamer, a judge appointed by President Barack Obama to the District of Columbia Superior Court in 2011
- Robin Waters, a security consultant with over 25 years of law enforcement service with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office
- Sharon White-Harrigan, the Women's Prison Association’s Hopper Home Residence Clinical Director who was formerly incarcerated and has worked in the criminal justice, domestic violence, mental health and substance abuse fields
Students asked panelists a variety of questions, ranging from their opinions on capital punishment to advice on what can be done to prevent crimes. The panelists’ views provided an informative backdrop of the different dimensions of the criminal justice system as the students weighed in on issues of reform through their bill.
Judge Krauthamer emphasized that capital punishment “is not a deterrent” for most people and therefore is unlikely to prevent crimes.
“The problem is people who are incarcerated, especially women, do have these horrific traumatic backgrounds that have been untreated,” White-Harrigan told students, noting that “untreated trauma” often goes hand in hand with incarceration. “I challenge all of you to pay attention to your friends and to people who are around you. Look for certain signs, know what those signs are, and try to have a conversation. Be there for them and look up resources where they can get adequate help.”
Waters similarly underscored the importance of ensuring people and communities have access to the resources they need. She recounted a story about a subsidized school bus program that was eliminated in Florida, and explained that students who relied on taking the school bus now had to walk through rival gang neighborhoods to get to school. This, she said, resulted in many of them skipping school altogether and even joining gangs to protect themselves.
“We took away a resource and manufactured criminals,” Waters said. “When you take away resources from areas that need them, you create the people who are going to fill our jails.”
“You as a state legislator can make sure that funding goes to the communities that need it,” Bentele advised students, noting that “underserved communities who need these services the most don’t have a good way of accessing these funds.”
After hearing from the panelists and participating in workshops, student senators were split into districts determined by their advisories to debate the bill. Students worked together to deconstruct the bill, amendment by amendment, and debated whether their “district” would vote for the bill in its current form, support some aspects of the bill and not others, or reject the bill in its entirety.
Tessa D. ’22 emphasized that “we agree with the sentiments of the bill but we do have some problems concerning the amendments,” citing budgetary concerns for an amendment that would provide “government-subsidized high school and college education” to incarcerated people. Tessa argued that if funding for that portion of the bill were reallocated from other important programs, such as mental health or exercise, that it would “actually not benefit [incarcerated people].”
Other students raised similar apprehensions. “This would be a very expensive bill,” said Kyla B. ’19. “Funds have to come from something to go towards something else. We should know that if we’re going to pass this bill.”
Kyla also noted that the amendments attached the bill seemed unrelated to its title and goals. “These amendments are extreme and would probably need sections and subsections of their own to explain how we are going to implement [them],” she underscored.
Natalia C. ’19 noted that there were “compelling arguments on both sides,” but her district ultimately decided to support the bill.
After hearing from panelists, participating in workshops and debating the bill, student senators were finally ready to cast their votes, which they did electronically via an app shared by the conference organizers. In the end, student senators narrowly voted to pass the bill along with three of four amendments, choosing to eliminate the use of monetary bail, provide government subsidized education and health care to incarcerated individuals, and ensure that incarcerated people can vote in all elections. The day ended with Brizendine signing the bill into law—a moment which was the culmination, not only of the students’ hard work and engagement throughout the conference, but also of a year’s worth of planning and preparation.
“At this time last year, we invited students and teachers to join us in thinking about what today would look like,” said Murphy, who gave special thanks to Isabelle, Chloe and Louise. “I have to point out that in that lunch-time conversation, they were all there and all contributing to the building blocks of what this day ended up being. We’re so very grateful to them for their enthusiasm and their hard work all through the year.”
“Thanks again to that group and to all of you for being so focused and engaged throughout the day.”