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Under the Dome


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An internship in the Pennsylvania Capitol has given Albright College's Dan McGurl ’15 a behind-the-scenes look at the political process and a chance to help reform the juvenile justice system.

By Hilary Bentman

Dan McGurl is a political junkie. First thing in the morning, he checks Keystone Report, an online Pennsylvania political news aggregator. Next, the Albright College junior logs on to Politico.

“I love politics. It’s a mess but it’s fun,” said McGurl, who, not surprisingly, is majoring in political science.

So when the Springfield, Montgomery County, native had the opportunity to spend fall 2013 interning with the state legislature in Harrisburg, he packed his bags and headed west.

McGurl was one of seven students from across the state accepted into the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Legislative Fellowship Program, a fulltime, paid internship that “combines education, work experience and insight into the people, issues and politics of the legislative process.”

McGurl met with Harrisburg’s movers and shakers – everyone from Gov. Tom Corbett to Attorney General Kathleen Kane – and got a backstage pass to the political maneuvering under the rotunda.

“There’s so much sub-context going on,” he said. “There’s a lot that doesn’t get seen by the public – not backroom stuff, but the wheeling and dealing, behind-the-scenes stuff.”

Assigned to the Gaming Oversight Committee and its Democratic chairwoman, Rep. Rosita Youngblood of Philadelphia, McGurl was treated like a fulltime staff member, not someone there to run errands. He met with various gaming interest groups, attended closed-door policy meetings, responded to Youngblood’s constituents, wrote policy analyses of bills, and conducted other research. And like any capitol staffer, McGurl put in some long hours, sometimes as many as 65 per week.

Since the Gaming Oversight Committee is a bit quiet these days, McGurl had the opportunity to work in other public policy areas, most notably juvenile justice, where he not only has a passion for reform, but worked on measures that could bring it about.

Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system, said McGurl, is plagued with problems, from the high number of minorities and mentally challenged individuals incarcerated, to defendants with inadequate access to quality representation, to the fact that Pennsylvania has the highest number of inmates serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes they committed as youths.

“Pennsylvania is socially progressive but politically resistant to change, and it’s way too reactionary and emotionally charged,” said McGurl. “Pennsylvania is a microcosm of the larger issues that we see with the ineffectiveness of the federal government.”

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Dan McGurl '15 spent the semester interning for Pennsylvania State Rep. Rosita Youngblood of Philadelphia (pictured right)

McGurl drafted two proposals to reform the juvenile justice system that are expected to be introduced this summer. The first is a bill dealing with juvenile offenders’ competency to stand trial. The proposal would expand procedural protections by making developmental immaturity a factor in findings of incompetency for juveniles in delinquency hearings.

McGurl’s second effort is a resolution to establish a bipartisan taskforce to study whether those individuals, sentenced as juveniles to life without the possibility of parole, should have access to parole hearings.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentencing of juveniles to life without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional. But the ruling did not address what to do with prisoners sentenced prior to 2012. That was left to the states to decide, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the high court’s ruling does not retroactively apply to those in the Commonwealth.

“As I was doing research and advocating for the bills, I was surprised by what I was finding,” said McGurl, who noted that even if the proposals go nowhere, just making people aware of the issue and spurring conversation is a victory.

Bill Thomas, executive director of the Gaming Oversight Committee and McGurl’s direct supervisor, called his intern “an asset to our office.”

“While working here, he was quickly relied upon to serve as an extension of our committee staff. He had a keen ability to pick up on the nuances of a professional office, and was eager and willing to learn about the legislative process,” said Thomas.

Thomas calls the fellowship a win-win. Students like McGurl gain real-world political experience – the “things you cannot learn in a textbook or from a lecture,” said Thomas – while his committee gains invaluable help, especially during a busy legislative session.

“We want students to come away feeling prepared and confident that they can jump right into the workforce,” said Thomas. “We want students to be inspired to continue with public service – whether it’s working within local, state or federal government – or just remaining active in the issues that matter to them.”

McGurl certainly will. He has returned from Harrisburg with a treasure trove of knowledge and connections that he hopes to put to good use in a career in public policy. But McGurl isn’t waiting until graduation. He’s already at work on a campaign for a candidate running for state representative, and he’s fielding summer internship offers ranging from Chicago to Washington, D.C.

McGurl, who has a student pilot's license, took a gap year after graduating from high school to volunteer with AmeriCorps. After his freshman year at Albright, he cycled across country for Bike & Build, which raises money for affordable housing.

“I have been very fortunate,” said McGurl, “and it’s through my experiences and the skills I’ve gained at Albright that I know I’m capable of so much more.”

 

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