OLYMPIA - After six months of meetings around the state with concerned citizens, juvenile intervention workers, prosecutors and law enforcement, Rep. Charles Ross saw the fruition of his work with House passage on a bipartisan bill to crack down on criminal street gangs and violence.
House Bill 2712, co-sponsored by Ross (R-Naches) and Rep. Christopher Hurst (D-Enumclaw), was approved by the Washington State House of Representatives 94-1 this past Monday. It now heads to the Senate, where it's expected to receive similar support.
"We drove through parts of my community that I think people are honest-to-god scared of their neighbors," Ross told colleagues on the House floor. "There's no way we can enact a law here today that's going to take that fear away.
"But I do believe most of this bill will be the foundation that will heal these communities that are broken by gang violence."
A measure that passed in the 2007 Legislature led to six meetings of the gang task force around the state with community members and a variety of professionals dealing with gang violence.
"From Yakima to Seattle and Spokane to Vancouver, families are crying out for help," Ross said. "Businesses and homeowners are distraught and helpless at the damage that gangs can do. Law enforcement needs real tools to stop gang members from creating fear in our communities."
Several legislators who spoke in support of the measure described it as "the most important bill that will be passed this year in the Legislature."
The gang bill contains eight primary components:
• Create a statewide gang definition...would allow law enforcement and courts to identify a gang member for sentencing.
• Authorize civil anti-gang injunctions...would allow cities such as Sunnyside and Yakima a legal way to prevent established gang members from associating within designated 'safe zones.' Certain safeguards would protect citizens' civil liberties while preventing gang association, and therefore, crime.
• Create a statewide gang information database...would allow law enforcement around the state to track and identify known gang members.
• Increase sentencing for adults who recruit juveniles.
• Create a temporary witness relocation program, if funded...would help keep victims safe and encourage testimony in court cases.
• Establish a graffiti/tagging removal grant, if funded...citizens who spoke to the task force expressed that this method of gang communication leads to greater neighborhood fear.
• Provide grants in 2008, if funded...law enforcement agencies could use to combat gang violence.
• Establish five pilot projects in 2009-2011, if funded...Ross is hopeful Yakima will be chosen for one of the projects.
"I'm proud that today we have a proposal that I know has a lot of input from citizens across the state," said Ross. "Each time we met with people, they told us 'this is how it's supposed to work - lawmakers out in the community taking input from those who will be impacted by this legislation'," Ross told colleagues on the House floor. "This bill will grow and change through the local authority of the community that it begins to affect."
While the funding was removed from the bill, Ross said all indicators show the funding for the projects will come through later in the supplemental budget.
"We have a responsibility to prevent gang violence, and this bill takes a direct approach with suppression, intervention and prevention," Ross said. "I'm proud of the bipartisan work that went into this bill - it's a great starting point."