OLYMPIA — Yakima County’s experiment with a gang court is the inspiration for a new state law.
Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill Thursday that will allow counties to set up juvenile gang courts that bring young offenders with gang history before judges for routine hearings whether they’ve been complying with their probation or not.
Last year, Yakima County started a gang court specifically for juvenile offenders, which advocates call the first such court in the nation.
The gang court is designed to provide more accountability for juveniles with relatively minor offenses, but who are at risk of becoming further immersed in gangs. Such courts will use a team of social workers, school officials and probation counselors for intensive intervention. Participation by parents and community members also is stressed.
Sentencing is deferred for a year, but even if the young offender completes every requirement, the case isn’t dismissed. The court, however, might impose a more lenient sentence.
Since Yakima County’s gang court started last June, 10 children have become involved. Only one dropped out partway through, said Robyn Berndt, a juvenile court administrator.
The county’s gang court, funded by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant, also employs former gang members as outreach specialists who routinely visit the kids in the program.
The legislation, House Bill 2535, requires counties that set up gang courts to keep careful records of reoffense rates. It passed the House 97-1 on March 5. The Senate passed SB 2535 on Feb. 29 by a 48-0 vote.
The measure drew bipartisan support, and was championed by Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima, and Rep. Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma.
The juvenile gang court sets a specific regimen that offenders must follow, such as getting substance abuse treatment, counseling and other programs.
Among the bill’s elements:
Authorizes counties to establish and operate juvenile gang courts, in which young offenders who have been involved in criminal gangs will be continuously supervised while they receive services.
Provides that a young person must meet basic requirements for admission to a juvenile-gang court.
Allows counties to set stricter standards for admission and participation in the gang court.
Requires that counties operating juvenile gang courts must keep track of information on participants, and that the state Administrative Office of the Courts must report recidivism information to the Legislature.