A bipartisan bill passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor last month authorizes counties to establish juvenile gang courts, in a program similar to a successful one already in place in Yakima. But budget issues may derail the promising initiative before it even becomes a law.
Harold Delia, the Yakima County Court Administrator, was one of the initial organizers of the initiative, and he says that, although it is still limited in scope, its impact has been extraordinary. Ten kids ages 11 to 17 -- all repeat offenders arrested for felonies such as burglary, carjacking, carrying a gun in attempt of assault, etc. -- have been referred to the court thus far, and all but one have managed to avoid further legal trouble. Two participants were the victims of attempted shootings; both stuck with the program.
The Yakima gang court combines several resources, including social workers, intervention specialists, teachers, and police officers, into a comprehensive support network managed by the court. Delia explains that in the early stages, kids and their parents must appear before a judge once a week. Before each meeting, the judge is briefed on the young offender's progress and recent behavior.
"When the judge goes to meet with the parent and child, he pretty much already knows what's going on," Delia says. "Have they committed themselves? Are they out on the streets late at night? Have cops run into them? Are they going to tutoring? Are the parents involved? We treat the gang problem as a family problem. A lot of what happens when we try to move kids out of a gang, their siblings or parents get threatened. We try to address the whole family."
If the kid re-offends, he or she gets slapped with the original charge and locked up. But, if all goes according to plan, the meetings with the judge are scaled back to once every two weeks, and finally once a month. In the meantime, the kids are mentored by former gang members who have successfully turned their lives around. James Jahr, an intervention specialist with the Yakima program, is a former Norteño gangster who is now involved with the Victory Outreach Church. He says he has helped seven kids get their tattoos removed, and has guided one through the job-interview process.
"We provide services that aren't getting met," Jahr says. "We make sure they're OK, their power is not shut off. We're providing for them and meeting their needs. You ain't going to tell me to stop banging and selling drugs if my power is shut off and there's not food on my table."
Impressed by the outcomes in Yakima, the legislature approved the gang court bill almost unanimously. Part of the appeal, however, was that the law had zero impact on the budget. Counties are authorized to establish gang courts, but there is no additional funding to help make that happen. The fiscal-impact summary for the bill says the courts are "subject to the availability of funds appropriated for this purpose," but the lawmakers did not approve a companion bill that would have allocated several million dollars to combat gang violence in the state.
The state is supposed to complete by 2015 a report on how much the gang courts will likely cost. In the meantime, the fiscal-impact summary says "It is unknown how many counties would establish these courts." The lack of funding has Ladenburg, the bill's prime sponsor, concerned that no counties will adopt the system.
"Often times our policies and decisions are based on what we can do financially," Ladenburg says. "Even if this is a great program -- and I think it is -- it might not be the right time to do it in certain areas because there's not the money to do it. Obviously our kids need us trying to make sure they don't continue down a path that will end up with them in jail or prison, but if there's no money, it's difficult to do that."
Delia says the gang courts are "really staff-intensive," but that the actual cost is minimal because it mostly utilizes services already available. Yakima plans to expand the program to 60 kids in the coming year, bringing in more first-time offenders.
It's still early -- the bill doesn't officially become law until June 7 -- but Delia says the only Washington county that has expressed interest thus far is Pierce, Ladenburg's home turf. A delegation from Houston also visited Yakima recently to learn more about the system, and representatives from the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce are also set to visit in July.
Delia says the biggest selling point for the gang court system is that it reduces recidivism, saving money in the long run by cutting jail and court costs. That appeals to Paul Sherfey, the Chief Administrative Officer for King County Superior Court, but he says it's too soon to say whether gang courts will be coming to Seattle.
"I'm sure all jurisdictions will look to see what the return on their investment is," Sherfey says. "When we're presented with an option like gang courts, when it makes sense is when there's a way of redeploying funds in some way. We're always searching for ways to save dollars."