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Grant funds intended to steer youth clear of gang life

YAKIMA - A new program in Yakima County aims to show youths there is life beyond gang activity.

Thanks to a $280,000 Gates Foundation grant, Yakima County will embark on an 18-month program that will hire former gang members to mentor current juvenile gang members away from that activity.

The plan, and the grant funding that's paying for it, was approved yesterday, Tuesday, by Yakima County commissioners.

Harold Delia is the county's court administrator, and he says the money will pay for two full-time gang intervention specialists (the former gang members) and one half-time supervisor.

He says the focus is mentoring gang youths who are currently on probation.

"We have 257 known (juvenile) gang members on probation and this program will allow us to work with 90 of them," Delia explained. "We'll take the ones most in danger of being committed to state institutions if they continue their behavior."

The focus, Delia says, is to "work with kids in gang court as mentors and to make sure they get back in school and are doing well in the community."

Yakima County has the only juvenile gang court in the nation, he said.

There is a screening process both for the former gang members who are hired, as well as the juveniles they'll be mentoring.

Delia said juvenile gang members on probation first have to want to participate in the mentoring program, then they and their parents have to meet with a judge weekly.

Juveniles also have to meet with a school intervention specialist and a family therapist.

As for the two former gang members to be hired as mentors, Delia said they will face a stringent hiring process.

He said they can have a criminal history, but not within the last five years. Those with past child abuse or sex violations are ineligible to apply.

Besides interviewing past employers, Delia said the screening process will also interview law enforcement officials to ensure the candidates haven't been active in gangs. Two law enforcement officers will also sit on the interview board.

Yakima County has received 52 job applications from former gang members seeking the two posts. Delia said that's been narrowed down to 13 candidates, with interviews planned for this Friday.

He hopes to have the program up and running by the middle of August.

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