Attorney general sets sights on curbing gangs

By Michelle Dupler, Herald staff writerMarch 2, 2011 

There is a moment crystallized in Attorney General Rob McKenna's memory when he first realized that Washington had a gang problem.

He told members of the Richland Rotary Club on Tuesday that the epiphany came in 2005 when he was told he couldn't pass out red wristbands with an anti-drug message to students at a school because red is a gang color.

He also couldn't use blue, white or pink.

"We finally came up with green. That was a neutral color," McKenna said. "It really opened our eyes to the issue."

So he started investigating and working on legislation to try to curb the problem.

He told Rotary members that from 2009-10, the state saw a 45 percent increase in gang-related shootings and that many involve young people.

He also noted that Washington has the fourth-highest number of drive-by shootings in the nation in raw numbers -- higher than more populous states.

There are more than 2,000 active gangs in the Northwest, and hundreds of thousands of active gang members, he said.

"This is a serious problem," McKenna said.

His latest proposals attack the gang issue from three directions -- by toughening penalties for gang leaders who recruit teenagers, by allowing cities to use nuisance abatement orders to shut down gang houses and by creating a way for local governments to pay for prevention programs.

It's the last piece that might have the most lasting effect.

"We want to try to help kids avoid choosing the gang lifestyle to begin with," he said.

McKenna said he believes the state made the wrong decision by cutting money for after-school programs that give children and teens something to do until their parents get home.

"Too many children go home to empty houses if they go home when school lets out for the day," he said. "It's just the way it is. Parents have to work, have to try to make a go of it economically. ... We need after-school alternatives."

The idea he sent to the Legislature is to take some of the money his office wins in lawsuits -- money that now just goes into the state general fund -- and make it available for grants to local schools for activities that will help keep students occupied and out of trouble.

Because it's an unpredictable funding source, the Legislature doesn't count money awarded to the state in lawsuits in the budget. That means the proposal won't take money out of the budget during a difficult time for the state, McKenna said.

"It is found money," he said. "We recover millions a biennium."

Another source of money for gang prevention programs would come from a $5 fee added to traffic citations.

McKenna's proposals were bundled into House Bill 1126, which had a public hearing in the House Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness Committee on Jan. 19.

McKenna said he has been told the bill will come to a committee vote sometime within the next week or two. It then would go to a vote of the full House.

The attorney general was optimistic about the bill's chances for passing.

"We have got to get on top of this problem," he said. "We have one of the worst gang violence problems in America. A lot of innocent lives are being ended or harmed as a result. There is no greater priority in public safety."

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