NASW Chapters Find Legislative Success

— Heidi Sfiligoj, News Staff


The NASW chapters in Vermont and New Mexico have been actively involved in various efforts to get important legislation passed in their states this year.


The Vermont chapter was a partner in the Freedom to Marry coalition that worked to enact equal marriage rights in Vermont. Same-sex marriage was legalized in the state on April 7, making it the first state to have legalized same-sex marriage through legislation instead of litigation. Vermont will allow same-sex marriage beginning Sept. 1.

The chapter helped the Freedom to Marry coalition by staffing information tables at community venues and distributing buttons at the State House.

"Backed by NASW national policies, as articulated in Social Work Speaks, and by a unanimous decision of the Chapter Board, the chapter included this as one of our priority legislative issues for the year," said Rilla A. Murray, executive director of the Vermont Chapter. "We publicized this in our electronic newsletter, bi-weekly e-mail updates to members, and in our Social Work Day literature. Our members communicated with legislators throughout the process. Members were present in support at public hearings and demonstrations all over the state."

The chapter also participated in a news conference held by mental health professional associations, each of which had signed on to a joint statement in support. The news conference received front page coverage in the Burlington Free Press and other Vermont newspapers.

"We are very proud of Vermont's legislators for doing the right thing and we intend to stand behind those legislators in the next election," said Murray.

New Mexico

The New Mexico Chapter was involved in efforts to repeal the death penalty in its state. On March 18, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed a bill repealing the death penalty and replacing it with life without the possibility of parole. The law takes effect July 1 and will apply to crimes committed after that date.

New Mexico Chapter Executive Director Pat Tyrrell said his chapter's involvement was directly related to NASW's position on the death penalty. "NASW, on the basis of the arguments stated and grounded in professional values and ethical principles and standards as delineated in the Code of Ethics, maintains that the integrity of human life and the promotion of human well-being are among the highest values to which a society aspires. The practice of capital punishment, which involves a deliberate act of execution by the state, is therefore at variance with the fundamental values of the social work profession," according to the "Capital Punishment and the Death Penalty" policy in Social Works Speaks, the compilation of policies adopted by the NASW Delegate Assembly process.

The New Mexico Chapter encouraged its members to ask the governor to sign the bill. Richardson had requested that New Mexicans call or e-mail him their thoughts on the legislation after lawmakers passed the bill. According to the governor's office, more than three-quarters of the people who weighed in on the bill favored the measure.

Tyrrell has served as co-chair of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty since its inception in 1997. Social worker Lynn Christiansen and Tyrrell helped organize the coalition. At the time the governor signed the repeal measure, more than 140 organizations had joined the coalition.

Tyrrell's desire to repeal the death penalty was for both professional and personal reasons. "My brother-in-law was brutally murdered, and my wife and I became totally committed to repealing the death penalty as a result of our experience with the criminal justice system," he said.

Repealing the death penalty was one of the legislative issues on the agenda for the Student Legislative Advocacy Day, which took place on Feb. 20. Tyrrell's student intern Lisa Nance coordinated the day. "Students from different schools of social work throughout the state went to the state capitol and visited with legislators to discuss capital punishment along with other issues," said Tyrrell.

At a seminar hosted by the Albuquerque Metro Program Unit in November, Juan Melendez, who spent 18 years on death row in Florida before being exonerated, spoke to the New Mexico Chapter about his experience. More than 130 people in 26 states have been exonerated since the early 1970s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, including four people from New Mexico.

Tyrrell said this is one of the reasons the New Mexico Chapter worked to repeal the death penalty. He also said every cost study of the death penalty concludes that capital punishment is more costly than life in prison without parole.

New Mexico joins 14 other states that do not impose the death penalty. It is the second state to ban executions since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. New Jersey became the first in 2007. Colorado, Kansas, Maryland and Montana, are also considering changes to their capital punishment laws.

"The tide is turning towards repeal, and I expect more states to repeal in the near future," said Tyrrell.