Street gang bill stalled in state House

By John Trumbo, Herald staff writerMarch 31, 2011 

A bill that would fight the street gang problem has strong, unanimous support of city and county officials in the Tri-Cities but appears all but dead in Olympia.

The measure, House Bill 1126, has been stalled in the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee since January.

If approved, the measure would establish a grant program for gang prevention and intervention, establish sentencing enhancements of up to 24 months additional for criminal street gang-related crimes, and allow prosecutors to seek a protection order against a criminal street gang associate or member.

"It's amazing to me we're having this problem because I haven't found anyone opposed to it," said Leo Bowman, Benton County commissioner. He was in Olympia on Wednesday specifically to lobby for the bill.

"I came here to try to help that bill and see if there is some way to break the logjam and get it moving," Bowman said.

Bowman said he had spoken with Attorney General Rob McKenna, who initially had promoted the bill and sought sponsors. McKenna told him there were no partisan issues with the bill, so that leaves no explanation for the hang-up, Bowman said.

One of the bill's sponsors, 8th District Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, said he also is flummoxed by the lack of action on the bill.

"It is effectively dead. I am very disappointed we didn't address the more difficult topics in this session, and this is one of them," Haler said.

Alexa Silver, counsel to the House committee that has the bill on indefinite hold, said it isn't officially dead. He said it could be revived before the session ends April 24, or next year during the second half of the two-year legislative session.

Eighth District Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, said he was disappointed the street gang bill is hung up.

"It is as high a priority for me as for the Tri-Cities, and it also had great bipartisan support going in. It is absolutely necessary, a tool law enforcement needs to deal with the gang problems across the state," Klippert said.

Calls to the committee chairman, 31st District Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, and 29th District Rep. Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma, were not answered Wednesday.

Klippert said there is no clear reason why the bill is floundering, but he suspects "a majority of legislators don't realize how serious the problem is."

Haler said committee member 14th District Rep. Charles Ross, R-Naches, "wouldn't elaborate" why there was a hold-up on the bill.

But Haler said it shouldn't involve any perception about the bill targeting any particular ethnic group. "To me that isn't an issue," he said.

A more likely explanation is the overriding concern about the state budget crisis.

"Everybody is walking on eggshells with the budget here. I'm just trying to keep (the street gangs) bill alive for next year," Haler said.

The Office of Juvenile Justice in the Department of Social and Health Services would be required to seek federal funding to create the statewide grant program the bill would create. Organizations eligible for the grants would include nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations and coalitions.

Marie Mosley, Kennewick city manager, said her counterparts in Richland and Pasco have agreed the street gangs bill is a high legislative priority.

"I hope it will continue to be too. We are going to give it some time this summer," she said.

John Trumbo: 582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com

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