Opinion

Legislature has to make life tough on gang members

The holidays are a time for most people to enjoy family and social events, but for those of us elected or re-elected to the state Legislature our time is consumed with preparing for the session that begins on Jan. 12. Considering the budget outlook, it’s no surprise that most of the comments I’ve heard from folks around town is them being sympathetic about the difficulty of the task facing legislators as they write the new two-year budget.

Actually, I look forward to the demands of making sure that the priorities of the citizens of the 31st Legislative District are appropriately reflected in these challenging times. As I stated throughout the summer and fall, no mater how difficult, this budget must and will be balanced on existing revenues and without raising taxes.

The budget and stimulating our economy will consume a significant amount of the upcoming legislative session. However, other pressing issues must not get lost during the budget debate. One of those important issues is dealing with criminal street gangs and their impact on the lives of honest, law-abiding citizens.

It was sad this last month to see the stories of the lives of young people cut short due to violent street gang members. On one single weekend there were nine shootings in Seattle and, although not all of them were gang-related, a large portion were.

Last year, I prime sponsored the Omnibus Gang Bill, which began the process of holding gang members to a higher level of accountability when their crimes furthered the objectives of a gang. It’s time to finish that work.

The final two pieces of the anti-gang legislation involve the authority for local cities and counties to file what are called “civil gang injunctions” against violent street gangs and their members, and finally, the funding of five pilot projects that will be community-based, collaborative processes to reduce the number of kids joining and staying in gangs.

Civil gang injunctions have now been enacted in a number of states and are extremely successful. This process involves suing a gang and enjoining (or prohibiting) their members from engaging in organized activities in public. Once a violent street gang member has been enjoined and properly served, they can no longer even meet with their associates in public without being arrested and immediately taken to jail.

One city in Riverside County, Calif., began using this process just over a year ago. There has already been a 42 percent citywide reduction in all homicides and violent crimes. Many other cities in California and several other states that have implemented this process have seen similar results. To protect the civil rights of ordinary citizens, the standards for a successful injunction are very high, but for a member of a criminal street gang who is incessantly involved in criminal behavior, the process is relatively simple.

On the second point, the pilot projects were part of last year’s Omnibus Gang Bill. The problem facing us now in moving this important project forward is funding. I have an idea that makes sense in the current economic climate.

The state of Washington has a dedicated fund that is used to combat auto theft. This account is funded entirely by fines on unlawful behavior and is not part of the general fund. As a 25-year police veteran myself, I of course understand the importance of combating auto theft and am happy that since we passed the auto theft bill two years ago, we have seen a huge decline in cars being stolen. My proposal is to take a small portion of these funds for the next two years to fund the anti-gang pilot projects.

There is also a direct nexus between organized street gangs and auto theft, so reducing the number of gang members will also cut down on the number of car thefts.

In the last several months, I have been working hard with other legislators and stakeholder groups to have this proposal ready for the Legislature in January. I believe I have assembled the right coalition of individuals and will see the successful conclusion of this project by passing these last two pieces of legislation. We will reduce street gang violence and reduce the type of sad stories we’ve seen on the evening news about young people and innocent citizens pointlessly losing their lives.

Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, worked as a police detective for 25 years and is serving his fourth term in the state Legislature.

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