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Gang bill a 'good starting point'

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Rep. Charles Ross (R-Naches)

OLYMPIA - It may not be the bill originally proposed, but the anti-gang legislation state lawmakers passed last week gives law enforcement a tool to combat criminal gangs.

That's according to 14th District Rep. Charles Ross (R-Naches), who commented on the bill during a live telephone town hall discussion last night.

"We still have a bill that defines what a gang crime is and a database of gang members and what kind of crimes they are committing," Ross said during the Tuesday night phone chat. "Last year we did not have this."

The bill, which came within just minutes of not making it out of the legislature this year, will also target gang members who recruit juveniles for crimes. Ross, one of the original sponsors of the bill, noted $2 million will be made available to communities to apply for help in removing graffiti and to aid the efforts of law enforcement resources.

It's not the $10 million or so that was sought to fund five pilot programs in the state. Ross and members of a statewide task force had hoped to have Sunnyside or Yakima included as one of the five pilot cities.

Ross said last night that money for the pilot projects would have been designated out of next year's budget. "The legislature is very careful about appropriating money for the next year," he said. Though lawmakers balked at setting aside $10 million one year in advance, Ross plans to pursue the funds next year. He noted that new proposals have already been filed this year seeking the funds for next year.

"I wish there was more money for it," Ross said of combating criminal gangs in 2008. "We're asking for sustained funding, long term money."

Another cornerstone missing from the original proposed gang bill is civil injunction.

The bill was amended by the Senate to remove the authority for local jurisdictions to use civil injunctions. The anti-gang injunctions would have provided a way to prevent established gang members from associating with each other within designated safe zones.

The civil injunction section of the bill was nearly a deal breaker, Ross noted later last night in a phone interview with the Daily Sun News.

He said there were some lawmakers from western Washington who thought the injunction portion was racially motivated. He said three people in the Senate nearly kept the bill from reaching the floor for a vote.

"The injunction just about killed it," Ross recalled. "Do we accept the bill without that or do we withdraw it?" Ross said of the dramatic dilemma bill supporters faced at the last minute. "Is the bill still worthy enough to let the injunction fall off?"

After consulting with other lawmakers backing the bill, he said there was an agreement to drop the injunction language and move forward. Ross pledged next year to renew support for civil injunction against gang members.

Getting the gang bill passed required compromise, and it also helped that Sunnyside's first-in-the-state gang bill made news last year.

"They (Sunnyside and, later, Yakima anti-gang laws) were at the center of the birth of this movement," Ross said. "Everybody on the (statewide) task force knows this.

"The fact that Sunnyside and Yakima went down this road, created a tremendous need," he added, noting the cities were presented in arguments for the bill in Olympia. "We referred back to Sunnyside and Yakima all the time."

With the gang bill in hand for this year, Ross said he's not done in trying to impress upon state lawmakers the importance of addressing gang violence.

One 70-something woman from Yakima called during the chat last night describing how she and her husband watched in horror as 50 gang members slugged it out on their front yard and only one police officer showed up to handle the confrontation.

"These are good starting points," he said of laws in the new gang bill to help prevent future gangland forays like the one the Yakima woman described. "But I'm committed to working next year and improving it."

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