State Rep. Christopher Hurst wants to stop the spread of criminal gangs. But the way he intends to do it has many of Seattle's civil rights activists up in arms.
The Enumclaw Democrat has co-sponsored a bill that, in the next biennium, aims to create pilot programs that would help keep kids out of gangs. But in the short term, critics say, the bill gives law enforcement frightening new powers that would put more Black and brown youth in jail for no reason.
Most of the $2.4 million that the House allocated for bill 2712 -- which passed the House 94-1 and is scheduled for a Feb. 27 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee -- will go to law-enforcement grants targeting gang crime and graffiti, with the legislation creating two new crimes: criminal street-gang tagging and involving a juvenile in a felony offense. The bill also calls on the state to study gang reduction in prison and create a witness relocation program.
But, more important to some civil rights advocates, the legislation would allow cities and counties to issue California-style civil injunctions that could ban gang members from being in certain areas or associating with certain people for five years. Police also would enter gang members' names in a Washington State Patrol database that will be used to track them for five years, after which the bill calls for names with no criminal activity to be purged.
That's assuming the names actually get purged or even represent active gang members -- two points of contention for civil rights advocates.
Hurst and fellow Democrat Eric Pettigrew, who represents the Central District, an area of Seattle where gangs have long been active, stress that the bill sets a high bar: Only gang members with convictions could get an injunction and no children under 12 can be added to the database. K.L. Shannon of The Defender Association's Racial
Disparity Project says that leaves a lot of room for complete innocents or reformed gang members to be added to or remain in the database, with no way to get out.
"If you are put into this database, you don't know, so how could you get your name out after five years?" Shannon asks. "There's no public access to it. It's only supposed to be used by law enforcement and that's it."
Prosecutors would serve the injunction papers on gang members in person. Unlike Los Angeles, where the Los Angeles Times reports that all 11,000 of the people who've ever gotten an injunction in the past 20 years remain banned or under other restrictions, Washington state citizens would be afforded a way out: Thanks to amendments insisted on by Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, people would have a right to a hearing and, if necessary, a court-appointed attorney to challenge the injunction, with Hurst and Pettigrew insisting that the bill is intended to help youth, not penalize them.
"There are no sanctions in this for juveniles," Hurst says. "This is not about throwing kids of color or minorities or poor communities in jail."
Pettigrew, who voted for the bill, says the legislation would penalize "people who have a criminal history [in which] they've been charged and convicted of a crime related to gang activity. That's the watermark."
"It can't just be my son hanging on the street corner with friends and now he's part of this big injunction."
Early on, Pettigrew says, he was worried about the bill's focus on punitive measures. But after working with Hurst and bill co-sponsor Charles Ross, R-Yakima-- the two co-chaired a state gang task force that led to the legislation -- he says he helped steer the bill toward what he says really works: programs aimed at intervention and prevention.
The bill directs the Governor's Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee to put out a call for proposals to agencies or nonprofits around the state, five of which will be chosen to create pilot projects aimed both at offering youth a different future and suppressing gangs. But Shannon notes the $10 million Hurst is counting to fund those projects isn't included in this year's budget -- it will have to be allocated by next year's legislature, which may find itself in a very different economic situation.
"There are five pilot projects proposed, but they don't tell you what they are or what they'll look like," Shannon says.
That was a deliberate choice, Hurst counters, to leave it up to communities to decide how best to combat gangs. But, with the intervention projects off in the future, Shannon says, "This bill is awful.... It's just about arresting Black and brown youth."