OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Uniformed sheriffs, community activists and onetime gang members sporting facial tattoos were among a large crowd that assembled Wednesday to debate a legislative proposal aimed at restricting criminal gangs in Washington state.
The bill — proposed by Attorney General Rob McKenna and sponsored by Rep. Charles Ross, R-Naches — aims to crack down on violent gang-related crime by allowing for broader injunctions on known gang activities and affiliations.
It directs legislators to request federal funding for intervention and prevention programs, expands law enforcement's ability to issue protection orders against gang members and close down housing where gang crime is known to occur. It also calls for sentence enhancements when certain felonies are committed.
"Today, the discussion is about your right to live in a private, safe community, versus your civil rights," Ross said Wednesday. "I've worked hard ... to keep an eye on how far we intrude in on someone's civil rights, while also maintaining your ability to live in an environment that is free and safe of gang violence."
More than 60 witnesses from around Washington signed up to testify on both sides of the bill, packing into the small room and overflowing into the hallway.
While acknowledging the need to reduce gang activity, the opposition's concerns were many: Too much emphasis on suppression, instead of prevention and intervention; enormous potential for racial profiling and increased arrests of young offenders who could be reached through other methods.
Chris Hoke, a chaplain in the Skagit County Jail, has worked with gang members for the past six years and foresees a "blowback" from the bill's injunction provisions in the form of more offenders going to prison and becoming more militarized by associating with other gang member inmates.
"I see our money would be ultimately going to sending kids to 'gang university' and to come back a few years later, worse," he said.
Several law enforcement officials came to speak in favor of the bill, lauding the provisions in Ross's proposal as new tools to help keep neighborhoods safe.
Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin and Yakima Police Sgt. Erik Hildebrand were among the law enforcement officials testifying in favor of the bill, saying it would provide as new tools to help keep neighborhoods safe. Irwin said his county already is finding success with its prevention and intervention measures, but must focus on crime-fighting first.
"We're in need of triage. We can't treat everything right now; we don't have the money to do all we need to do," Irwin said.
Dan Sytman, a spokesman for McKenna, said the current bill reflects the need to accommodate state budget problems while still recognizing the demand for community outreach programs to reduce gang activity.
"There are lots of good programs around the state, right in the local communities. We want to support those programs," he said.