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Lawmaking Comes To Life For Kids That Show Up For The Process

Tennessee Watson

This session, Wyoming lawmakers killed two different bills that would have required the U.S. Citizenship test to graduate from high school. Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow pushed the idea as a way to strengthen civics education across the state. Critics argued that rather than more exams, kids need more opportunities to experience democracy in action.

Projects like the Laramie Youth Council encourage young people to get involved with public policy. The 15 members of the council work to effect change in Albany County, and at the state level, too. This year, with support from the City of Laramie, Albany County and Albany County School District #1, they're lobbying state lawmakers to make improvements to the juvenile justice system.

Credit Tennessee Watson
Ruby Novogrodsky, Sam Miller and George Yost use the bus trip to Cheyenne to run through their lobbying strategy, while Laramie Youth Council Coordinator Sarah Reese stands by to answer questions.

The sun was barely cresting the horizon when the youth council members gathered in the parking lot of the Laramie High School last Monday. At 6:30 a.m. the bus departed for Cheyenne, and instead of getting extra sleep, the students used the hour-long ride to strategize about the day.

Wyoming is one of just a few states that requires juvenile offenders to petition to have their records expunged. House Bill 44 would streamline the expungement process by giving prosecuting attorneys the authority to clear records on behalf of juveniles who are in good standing. When the Laramie Youth Council started researching the issue, they found that a juvenile record can hurt young people's chances of securing education, housing and employment as adults. The idea behind the bill is to give kids a fresh start.

The early morning trek was to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would be voting on the bill that day.

Ruby Novogrodsky, a self-described theatre nerd, dispelled any anxiety about testifying before the committee by reminding herself that it's just like taking the stage. She kicked off the council's public testimony explaining that the expungement process is complicated, especially for kids from families who can't afford to hire a lawyer.

"And so they believe upon completion of their diversion program that their records are automatically expunged, but that's not how it works in Wyoming. That is how it works in a lot of other states," she explained.

Novogrodsky went on to tell the committee how if a kid from Wyoming and a kid from Montana with the same misdemeanor applied to the same college, the kid from Montana would have the advantage of a clear record. That's not guaranteed in Wyoming. Novogrodsky said that sends a message to kids that Wyoming doesn't care about their future.

From there, Sam Miller addressed concerns he'd heard from senators who see the proposed changes to the expungement process as too lenient on juvenile offenders.

"I'd like to reiterate that this is not the case," Miller said. "Though the [prosecuting] attorney can file on behalf of the individual there's still a 20 day waiting period where objections can be filed. So this makes it so that youth will want to reform themselves for society."

Will Daley-Green then used humor to drive home support for the bill.

"I think the biggest problem is that frankly, kids are morons." When chuckles from the committee died down he went on to explain how that stereotypical lack of follow-through can have dire consequences down the road, when even a misdemeanor on a juvenile record can make it hard to get a job as an adult.

The bill passed the Senate Judiciary with unanimous approval, but for Ruby Novogrodsky the big victory was being taken seriously.

"It was amazing to see the committee say, 'Thank you for coming. We appreciate your testimony,'" said Novogrodsky. "Because it makes you feel like you're not just a kid and that you're actually having an impact."

That feeling is how you get young people hooked on civics, added Sam Miller.

"If you go and watch [the process] when you're 16, you're going to be more likely to want to participate when you're 40," said Miller, "or run for state senate or city council, or be more civically engaged."

When the Senate went into session, Laramie Senator Chris Rothfuss made a special announcement to welcome the group.

"They are here to learn more about the process and to engage the legislature on a piece of legislation that will be worked over the next few days," said Rothfuss.

Following a standing ovation from the floor, Senate President Drew Perkins also welcomed the council. "As far as your lobbying efforts," said Perkins, "bring it on!"

He might have been joking, but the Laramie Youth Council was ready to play hardball, and Leila Johnson was keeping score. On a print-out of the Senate seating chart, she was marking "yes," "no," or "maybe" next to the lawmakers' names. When Cheyenne Senator Stephan Pappas exited the floor, Benaz Wadi and Caitlin Huang dashed off to intersect him in the lobby.

"Typically I have not told anyone how I'm going to vote on a particular bill, because I reserve the right to change my mind after I hear the debate," Pappas told Wadi and Huang. "But I can tell you I'm inclined to support the bill."

They recorded Pappas as a "maybe yes" and plotted who to target next.

Their diligence was paired with a good bit of fun. When Leila Johnson asked if anyone had talked to Senator Odgen Driskill, she joked: "He's got a big mustache. How could you forget that?"

Credit Tennessee Watson
Grace Dorrell, Will Daley-Green, Carlos Franco, George Yost, Calvin Webb (back row left to right), Lina Woelk, Ruby Novogrodsky, Sam Miller, Caitlin Huang, Leila Johnson, Benaz Wadi (front row left to right).

The goal was to pull a total of 16 senators off the floor. When the bus rolled up at noon, the youth council was one senator shy of their goal. Their civic engagement was cut short by obligations back at school.

Sam Miller did have a test to take, but he toyed with asking his mom to drive over from Laramie to pick him up so he could stay long enough to check off that last senator.

"Even though it's difficult to take a day off a school, I think the benefit outweighs that consequence," said Miller.

Turns out the students on the Laramie Youth Council aren't the only ones who want in on the political process. That day, Shoshone High School students came down to support career and technical education, and students from Pathfinder High School in Lander lobbied for a new State Amphibian.

If Ruby Novogrodsky had it her way, all schools would prioritize civic participation.

"School is where we spend seven hours of our day," said Novogrodsky. "So we need to go to the administration and our civics teachers, and ask them to facilitate these opportunities."

As we head to the bus, Laramie Youth Council Member George Yost, scored the day as a nine out of ten. He was impressed by how open and accessible Wyoming's lawmakers are, but there was one thing that was off limits.

"Ten out of ten would have been if they'd let us in the Senate break room," said Yost.

He'd heard that's where the good snacks were. To get at those he'll have to get elected.

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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