ANNAPOLIS – If Prince George’s high school students were running the state, a bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation would already have passed while a bill to lower the death penalty to 16 would have been killed in committee.
And those votes would have been taken in a fraction of the time that it has taken the General Assembly to deal with the official versions of the bills.
Teens participating in Student Legislative Day in Annapolis on Feb. 21 dispatched with those bills and five others — committee hearings and floor debates included — in a single morning.
In real life, six of the seven bills are still meandering through the labyrinth of the state legislature, which is halfway through its 90-day session.
“This is not just hands-on learning. It is hands-on, minds- in learning,” said Leroy Tompkins, curriculum and instruction director for the Prince George’s schools.
The second annual version of the event drew about 100 students, mostly members of the county’s student government or students who are in the Law and Public Policy programs at Largo and Potomac high schools.
Sponsored by the Prince George’s legislative delegation, it is one of the few times each year that students get to use the chamber of the House of Delegates to conduct mock legislatures.
Except for the speed in which the students conducted their business, the process was strikingly similar to the regular legislative process.
Students elected a House Speaker, a Speaker pro tem and committee chairmen to preside over committee hearings and floor debates.
Much of the heavy lifting was done in committee, such as a poignant debate on Senate Bill 367 — sponsored by Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, R-Carroll — which would lower the minimum age for the death penalty to 16.
Student legislators were divided between those who thought 16 was too young to give up on a person — no matter how heinous the crime — and those who believed adult crimes called for adult penalties.
“A cold-blooded murder is an adult crime, so if a 16-year- old can go out and commit an adult crime then he should be sentenced like an adult,” said Mark Crusante, an Oxon Hill High School sophomore who was one of the bill’s student sponsors.
But Stephanie Johnson, a junior at Potomac High School, challenged that philosophy.
“Let’s say further down the line a 12-year-old commits an adult crime, are you saying they would lower the age to 12?” she asked.
Several students later worried that a 16-year-old might be executed before reaching age 18.
Advocates for the bill pointed out that the appeals process usually takes several years. But committee chair Tracy Kistoo, a senior at Largo High School, was not persuaded.
“Let’s say the appellate process could be accelerated so that it took only a year. Would you put a 16-year-old to death?” she asked.
The committee voted the bill down, 16-12. The real version of the bill is not scheduled to come up for a hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee until Tuesday.
After the committee hearings, the students moved to the floor of the House, where they debated and voted on the five bills that received favorable committee reports and the two that did not.
When they were first given license to use the House’s electronic tote board, the students lit it up like a Christmas tree with multi-colored, blinking lights. But they later settled in, voting to approve four bills and reject three.
“They gave us a chance to speak our minds, as well as recreate the legislative process, said ReAna Reece, a senior at Largo High School.