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Legislation that would allow authorities to block gang members from visiting certain neighborhoods gets a public hearing later this morning in Olympia, but


Injunction Dysfunction: Controversial Gang Law Could Help Yakima, But Not King County

Sureno Gang.jpg
Image Source
Legislation that would allow authorities to block gang members from visiting certain neighborhoods gets a public hearing later this morning in Olympia, but King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg says the controversial law wouldn't be of much use here in Seattle.

The bill, HB 2594, is the work of Rep. Charles Ross, a Republican who represents several gang-plagued communities in the Yakima Valley. It is a spin-off of last year's failed anti-gang package backed by Attorney General Rob McKenna, and it's different in that deals specifically with civil injunctions against gang members.

Injunctions originated in California as a way for police and prosecutors to kick gang members off their turf, and keep them from hanging out with their partners in crime. An injunction is, essentially, a court order that says a person can't visit a certain part of town, associate with other gang members, or take part in gang-related activities like tagging, getting high, and, in the extreme, wearing gang colors or symbols. Violating the order typically results in a hefty fine and a trip to jail.

There's no equivalent currently on the books in Washington, and last year's proposal drew strong criticism from civil liberties advocates like the ACLU, and organizations such as the Latino Civic Alliance. They argue that injunctions don't get to the root of the gang problem, and could potentially result in egregious racial profiling.

Ross is adamant that's not the case with his new bill, which he says sets the bar high for prosecutors to prove the gang-affiliation of their injunction targets. There must be proof that an individual engaged in "a pattern of criminal street gang activity," and residents in the injunction area must testify that gangs interfere "with the quiet enjoyment of their residences," among other proposed criteria. And, unlike last year's version, there is a provision that requires courts to offer legal counsel to anyone involved in an injunction proceeding.

"It is much more sophisticated than going after a person wearing baggy pants and playing rap music," Ross says. "That's not what we're talking about."

Ross is the sponsor of two other bills that take a more progressive approach to combating gangs. One would fund outreach and intervention initiatives, and the other would create a juvenile gang court that offers sentence diversion, much like the state's drug courts. Ross says that many communities in his district already have similar programs in place, but they are crippled by the lingering presence of hardcore gang members.

"Parents are afraid to send kids to these programs," Ross says. "We're trying to fund programs that will change their lives, and they're afraid to go from point a to point b. Gang members are doing the things that intimidate people, hanging out on the street corner by a playground."

But whether injunctions are actually effective -- and whether they are worth the hassle for prosecutors -- is up for debate. California has had mixed results. Last year in San Francisco, quarreling norteños and sureños were responsible for a series of stabbings in the heart of the city's injunction "safety zone." Ross says he and his colleagues consulted officials from Oxnard, a sizable agricultural hub similar to Yakima, who touted their success with the tactic.

If injunctions became the law of the land in Washington a similar urban/rural disparity is likely. While many areas east of the Cascades have relatively established, well-defined gang territories, the densely populated King County area is a mishmash of cliques all sharing the same turf. Telling a gang leader he has to move from one hood to another might not be anything more than a mild inconvenience for him, but it's potentially a major hassle for the prosecuting attorney.

Satterberg points out that many of the activities covered by injunctions are already illegal, and says it can be hard to find citizens in gang neighborhoods willing to testify in court for actual crimes, let alone discuss how they're enjoying their residences.

"I wouldn't say we'd never use it, but I'd want to watch other jurisdictions try it out first," Satterberg says. "It appears, for me at least, that the cost of seeking these [injunctions] outweighs the benefits significantly."

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