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State legislators get an earful on gang problem

YAKIMA - A state task force, or work group, charged with developing an answer to criminal gangs held its first meeting yesterday in Yakima.

The group set aside three hours to hear public testimony at Yakima's Miller Park Activities Center and needed every minute of it with a standing-room crowd of more than 120 people.

The 16-member panel is co-chaired by Yakima-area State Senator Jim Clements. It is the result of legislation proposed by Clements and State Rep. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside.

Newhouse, who was not appointed to the task force, said it is significant that the task force's first of four meetings planned around the state took place in Yakima County.

"When some people think of Yakima they think of gangs but that's because we're not hiding from it," Newhouse said just before yesterday's meeting started. "I think it (the meeting in Yakima) recognizes that our area is already taking positive action to do something about gangs."

The action that received the most comment yesterday was an anti-gang ordinance passed by the cities of Sunnyside and Yakima.

Christopher Hurst is a state legislator from western Washington and co-chair of the task force. He noted that the Sunnyside ordinance, the first of its kind in the state, has received notice in the Seattle area media.

"It has gained attention in western Washington," Hurst said.

Several residents from Sunnyside testified to the task force yesterday, with most favoring the get-tough measures against criminal gang members.

"Gang activity has stopped in the area where I live," said Sunnyside resident Rafaelo Sanchez. "I agree with the ordinance but the city needs to study it better," Sanchez added, noting that she is aware of police officers unsure how to enforce the ordinance.

Luz Balderas of Sunnyside expressed more caution related to the anti-gang measure, noting that it is interfering with civil liberties. "We need your help," she told the task force.

Another Sunnyside resident, Amalia Sosa, expressed approval of the ordinance, noting that her house has been shot at three times. At the same time, she pleaded with the task force to put stricter measures in place requiring drug rehabilitation for juveniles.

Noting the example of her own son, Sosa said officials have told her there is nothing they can do to require drug treatment even though he has been incarcerated.

Clements apparently took Sosa's words to heart, noting that the system needs to be changed so that parents, rather than children, dictate the proper treatment.

Pat McDonald runs a farm in the Lower Valley with her husband. She is also a grandmother and said lawmakers need to make changes so that children can work with their parents and grandparents in the fields.

She described the example of one frustrated family in Toppenish who wanted to have their children work with them in the fields, but child labor laws have made it impossible. "They're worried about their children, that they'll run the streets while they (the parents) are working all day."

Kevin Chase is the Superintendent for the Grandview School District and a Sunnyside native. He agreed with McDonald and testified to the committee about his positive experiences growing up and working on the farm.

Children today, he added, aren't allowed to work with their parents, some of whom he said "work 10 hours a day, six days a week", and so spend time alone.

Other suggestions provided by the public yesterday include having schools require uniforms to remove the possibility of students wearing gang colors and tougher sentencing standards so there isn't a "catch and release" of gang criminals from custody.

Maria Luisa Quinonez of Sunnyside appeared before the task force and presented a simple appeal. "I want all this to end now," she said of criminal gang activity. "You are the ones who can make better laws for us."

Amidst the concerns and appeals at yesterday's hearing, the ACLU put in an appearance with a veiled threat of litigation if anti-gang ordinances go forward. "We have no plans for a lawsuit," an ACLU representative told the task force, before noting that the organization had legal moves as an "option". He added, "We have the money and resources to do that."

Clements accepted the call for maintaining civil liberties while pursuing criminal gang members.

But, he added, the work group will propose action.

The work group-which includes among its members lawmakers, prosecutors, defenders, law enforcement and representatives from the attorney general's office-is charged with evaluating and making recommendations to the Legislature

Clements said legislation commissioning the task force stipulates the group "shall" come up with additional legislative measures to combat gang-related crime.

Comments garnered from the public will be incorporated into the work group's recommendation to the state legislature in January 2008.

Clements said the task force will come up with specific plans for the state legislature to consider in fighting criminal gangs.

"We have a job to do," he said.

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