George Mason University

News at Mason

A legislative loss, but a winning experience

February 21, 2019   /   by Damian Cristodero

“To have an idea, to talk to people about it and have that idea turn into a bill, no matter where it went, it was very empowering.” — sophomore Ashley Stewart.

Stewart's policy memo, written for a Roosevelt Institute challenge, was picked up by Delegate Vivian Watts and introduced as legislation in the Virginia General Assembly. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

Legislation introduced in the Virginia General Assembly this year, which would have directed the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study reinstating discretionary parole in the commonwealth, died in subcommittee in January.

It was bad news for Ashley Stewart, but the George Mason University sophomore reported it with a smile. After all, it was her policy memo on the subject that had been picked up and introduced as bill HJ644 by Virginia delegate Vivian Watts, D-District 39.

“It was an amazing process,” said Stewart, who is from Yorktown, Virginia, and is majoring in government and international politics and conflict analysis and resolution. “To have an idea, to talk to people about it and have that idea turn into a bill, no matter where it went, it was very empowering.”

Stewart’s original memo was written as part of an annual policy proposal challenge for the Roosevelt Institute, a nonpartisan student policy organization with chapters in universities across the country.

Thanks to the Roosevelt Institute’s connections, Stewart was able to meet with Watts at her home in November, and that put the memo on the fast track to legislation.

Stewart said the idea for the policy memo came after hearing the podcast “Pod Save the People” discuss discretionary parole, which Virginia eliminated in 1995. HJ644 would have directed a statistical study into the reinstatement of discretionary parole, which releases an offender before a sentence is completed.

“Criminal justice reform is something I’ve always been passionate about because I see myself as a very privileged person,” Stewart said. “I see a lot of people who are disadvantaged compared to me suffer at the hands of our criminal justice system.”

Stewart said her abilities have been honed at Mason.

She said her CONF 345 Social Dynamics of Terrorism, Security and Justice class “challenged the traditional Western ideas of what terrorism is” and was an “ ‘Oh, my gosh, I need to rethink everything’ kind of experience.”

Her WMST 450 Women, Law and Justice class convinced her she wants to be an attorney.

“She was a great contributor to the class discussion,” said associate professor Alexandria Zylstra, who taught Stewart in that class.

In addition, Stewart said researching and composing policy memos for the Roosevelt Institute has made her a better writer and sharper thinker.

“You have to learn how to craft arguments,” she said. “That’s something that you can easily apply to writing an essay for a regular class or learning skills of persuasion when lobbying.”

Stewart, who hopes to work in politics crafting policy, did plenty of persuading in January, when Roosevelt Institute members traveled to Richmond, Virginia, to lobby for her bill.

“We had 13 meetings with legislators and staff to lobby for my bill and other bills we were supporting,” she said.

“I love politics,” Stewart added. “[Mason] is the place to be when it comes to furthering your career in a political field or government in general. This is the place to be if that’s where you want to go with your life.”