Community Members Want Real Solutions to Gang Violence

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Eva’s* son died from gang violence.  Every day she lives with an aching desire to hold him again.  But despite her grief, she opens her home to young people in her community, some of whom are at risk to be involved in gangs. A Yakima Valley resident, she wants to keep them off the streets and safe from the violence.   Eva is angry that her son is no longer with her, yet she wants more opportunities to help young people rather than sending them behind bars.

Alexia, a western Washington resident and member of the Latino Civic Alliance, is a woman who lost her cousin to gang violence. She wants meaningful change to prevent more tragic loss of life. Alexia testified against Attorney General Rob McKenna’s “anti-gang” bill (HB 1126) before a legislative committee in Olympia, saying that the gang injunctions in the proposed measure would not have prevented her cousin from joining a gang – what would have helped him was support at school to stop the bullying he was enduring.  

Much media coverage of the bill has overlooked people like Eva and Alexia and instead has portrayed the matter as a dispute between the ACLU and the Attorney General’s office.  But a truly important story is the opposition of many people from the communities who will be most directly affected by this bill – people living in the neighborhoods struggling with gang violence. They have demanded that the legislature reject this bill, with its injunctions that can lead to the incarceration of youth who have not been convicted of a crime.  Instead, they want investment in ways to keep kids out of gangs in the first place.

This bill does not provide the effective approach needed to combat gang violence. Communities need funds for services for young people to keep them in school, to give them alternatives to violence, to strengthen families and help them to navigate the challenges of adolescents.  They need support for their families.  They don’t need more ways to have their kids locked up in jails. 

On January 19, around 90 people testified on the bill before the House Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness Committee.  At least two-thirds urged the committee to reject the bill.  People who work with young people at risk for gang involvement like Lua Pritchard from Pierce County and Father Ron Patnode from Yakima County talked about the need for more services, not more arrests.  Former gang members like Alex, from Skagit County, told the committee the only way to help young people and communities is to provide social support services, not send more young people into to the criminal justice system through gang injunctions.  And people like Joaquin Martinez, a young organizer from Community to Community in Whatcom County, asserted that gang injunctions would make things worse and using such a tool is a misguided way to help young people.

In response to these critics, the sponsor of the bill has offered to amend it to add some limited funding for services while maintaining the new criminal provisions and the gang injunction language.  The Attorney General suggested that he could divert a portion of the funds collected by his office through consumer protection settlements to fund prevention or intervention programs. It isn't clear how much of this money would actually survive the fiscal process at a time when the legislature is scrambling for funds.  And it is not clear how the money would be allocated to service providers.

But since the bill might have money attached to it, legislative leaders have designated the whole bill to be "necessary to implement the budget."  This special designation means that the bill is not subject to the regular cut-off dates for bills to advance and could be voted on by the legislature at any time until the last day of session, which is set for April 24.  The risk, of course, that the promise of money causes the bill to move forward, but that the money gets stripped out, leaving only law enforcement measures that will make gang problems worse, not better.

Are you concerned that this bill will result in more young, vulnerable people being fed into the criminal justice system?  Make sure that the legislative leaders hear your voice. Send a letter to your legislators and the House leadership and urge them to stop this bill.

* This is a pseudonym to protect the identity of the mother to whom I spoke.