Bipartisan bill curbing youth gangs receives gubernatorial ink
Measure is meant to channel kids away from criminal activities
State Rep. Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma (29th Legislative District)
State Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima (14th Legislative District)
OLYMPIA — A bipartisan plan that Washington communities can harness to break the criminal cycle before it breaks their young people captured the governor's autograph today.
The Tacoma Democrat and Yakima Republican who championed House Bill 2535 said they want to encourage establishment of juvenile-gang courts in counties that want to pursue such a strategy. Prime-sponsored by State Rep. Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma, the measure calls for a strategic and collaborative approach in putting an end to juvenile gangs.
“A youth-gang court is a strategy our communities, working through superior courts in their counties, can put right to work to rescue our kids and our neighborhoods from a nightmare,” Ladenburg said.
“Juvenile-gang activities in cities and neighborhoods of all sizes are a threat to public safety, as well as being a terrible, dangerous menace for so many children themselves,” Ladenburg added. “We need to do everything we can to bring our kids back from the cliff of youth crime.”
State Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima, teamed up with Ladenburg in steering the youth-gang bill through the legislative process these past few months.
“Yakima County has a very successful juvenile-gang court that sets out a specific regimen of tasks young offenders must follow, such as substance abuse treatment, counseling and other programs, to turn their lives around. They have one chance of doing it right. Otherwise a full sentence is imposed. This gives young people the opportunity to make the right decisions, and holds them accountable for their actions,” said Johnson.
“Connie and I spent time in Yakima studying this system,” added Johnson. “We met with the county prosecutor, the judge, and various social agencies that work with the kids. We felt the Yakima County juvenile-gang court would be an excellent model for legislation to replicate its success in other Washington counties. It was a pleasure working with her to find solutions that hopefully will make a dent in the juvenile-gang problem across the state.”
Many Washington counties are currently operating “problem-solving” courts for specific offenders, including mental-health courts, drug courts, and DUI courts. Right now, most of these courts deal only with adult offenders.
“Counties are looking for new and innovative strategies to intervene with youth who are heading toward a life of criminal gang activity,” said Yakima County Commissioner Kevin Bouchey. “Juvenile-gang court is a great opportunity.”
The bipartisan legislation:
- Authorizes counties to establish and operate juvenile-gang courts, in which young offenders who have been involved in criminal gangs will be continuously supervised while they receive services;
- Provides that a young person must meet basic requirements for admission to a juvenile-gang court;
- Allows counties to set stricter standards for admission and continuing participation in the gang court; and
- Requires that counties operating juvenile-gang courts must keep track of information on participants, and that the state Administrative Office of the Courts must report recidivism information to the Legislature.
Yakima County is the lone county that has developed a gang court specifically for juvenile offenders. It started in 2011 and is the nation's first such court. Sentencing is deferred for a year, but even if the young offender completes every requirement, the case isn't dismissed. Potentially in such a case, the court might impose a more lenient sentence.
Yakima County's gang court stresses the involvement of the juvenile gang court judge, the use of evidence-based programs, and the coordination of services through a team approach. It stresses accountability of juveniles involved in the process, as well as involvement by the parents and community participation.
###Washington State House Republican Communications