Gang Court: Strapped

Will an innovative new state law fall prey to underfunding?

Passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor last month, House Bill 2535 is the work of Connie Ladenburg, a Democrat from Tacoma, and Norm Johnson, a Republican from Yakima. It allows individual Washington counties to establish juvenile gang courts, and sets some basic ground rules for how such programs should be operated. The inspiration is the gang court created in Yakima early last year, the first of its kind in Washington state.

Harold Delia, the Yakima County Court Administrator who was one of the initial organizers of the initiative, 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, and carrying a gun in attempt of assault—have been referred to the court thus far, and all but one have managed to avoid further legal trouble. 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.

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. "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 reoffends, he or she gets slapped with the original charge. But if all goes according to plan, meetings with the judge are scaled back to once every two weeks, and finally to once a month. In the meantime, the kids are mentored by former gang members who have successfully turned their lives around.

Impressed by the outcomes in Yakima, the legislature approved the gang-court bill almost unanimously. 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 lack of funding has Ladenburg, the bill's prime sponsor, concerned that no counties will adopt the system. "Oftentimes 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."

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.

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