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Tougher penalties proposed in legislation designed to combat criminal gangs

OLYMPIA - Attorney General Rob McKenna announced this week that new legislation to combat the activities of criminal gangs, a growing problem throughout the state, has now been introduced in both the state Senate and the House of Representatives.

The requested legislation from the Attorney General's Office would create the new crime of tagging/gang graffiti and provide longer sentences for crimes committed by members of criminal gangs and those attempting to join criminal gangs.

"Too often ordinary citizens are living in fear of criminal gangs and gang-related crimes, and feel like they're being held hostage in their own neighborhood," McKenna said. "Our police officers and prosecutors need new tools to hold these criminals accountable and deter future crimes. That's why our office worked with street-level cops to develop this bill, which is a step forward in the fight against criminal gangs."

The lead sponsors for Senate Bill 5987 are Sen. Jim Clements (R-Selah) and Sen. Mike Carrell (R-Lakewood).

"In Yakima County and around the state, gang activity is on the rise," Clements said. "Our citizens are living with the threat of intimidation and harassment on a daily basis and property values are depreciating in some areas due to the increase in gang-related crimes, such as drug dealing and graffiti."

The lead sponsors for House Bill 2224 are Reps. Dan Newhouse (R-Sunnyside) and Charles Ross (R-Naches).

"Gang members are coming to our area from other states, many of whom are supported by the sale of illegal drugs like meth, and heroin. Sadly, we now are beginning to see children being born into second and third-generation street gangs," said Newhouse.

"In addition to the human toll it takes, increased gang activity has seriously strained the budgets of local jurisdictions and threatens our schools' ability to educate our youth," Newhouse added.

The term "criminal gang" is carefully defined in the bill to include only those groups that have as one of their primary purposes the commission of criminal activity.

Members of criminal gangs or those attempting to gain admission to a criminal gang who commit a felony would receive additional prison time: two years more for class A felonies, 18 months more for class B felonies and one year more for class C felonies.

The new crime of tagging/gang graffiti would be a gross misdemeanor for a first offense and a class C felony for repeat offenses. A gross misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a fine of $5,000, while a class C felony is punishable by a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. The standard sentencing range for a repeat offender is 0-12 months in jail.

The bill also directs the attorney general to establish a work group to evaluate gang-related crime in Washington state, create a statewide gang data base, and make recommendations regarding additional legislative measures to combat gang-related crimes. The work group will consist of local law enforcement, prosecutors, municipal attorneys, district and superior court judges, prison administrators, probation officers, and experts in gang prevention and juvenile justice. The work group will report back to the legislature on its findings and recommendations by Jan. 1, 2008.

Neither bill has been scheduled for a hearing yet.

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