Opinion

The sobering truth about gang violence | Guest column

By Justice Bobbe J. Bridge (ret.)

Center for Children and Youth Justice

Gang violence seems to be everywhere today, even right here in our own suburban neighborhoods — and it’s mobile, moving across city borders.

So, how can South King County communities work together to deal with it?

High-profile incidents involving gang violence — such as the shootings last month at a car show in Kent — generate most of the headlines. But the pervasive influence that gangs have on vulnerable youth can be just as dangerous as the gunfire. Once lured in as teens or even pre-teens, gang members are more likely than other kids to drop out of school, become the victims of crimes or wind up in prison.

Here are just a few sobering facts:

• According to the FBI’s 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment, gangs are responsible for up to 80 percent of all crimes in communities across the nation today.

• Conservative figures from the King County Sheriff’s Office show that gang incidents increased by more than 5 percent from 2009 to 2010.

• Indications are that Seattle’s success in addressing gang issues may be driving gangs into other parts of the county.

• In 2008, the FBI estimated that 45 percent of all gang members in King County resided in suburban and rural areas, which often struggle to manage the unique challenges presented by gang-involved youth.

These startling facts prompted the Center for Children and Youth Justice (CCYJ) to convene the Suburban King County Coordinating Council on Gangs. The council is comprised of high-level decision-makers from across South and East King County — including mayors, police chiefs and school superintendents — all committed to breaking down the systemic and procedural barriers that stand in the way of a coordinated approach to addressing gang issues.

Because CCYJ is dedicated to meaningful and lasting reforms of systems serving vulnerable children and youth, the goals for the council are multi-dimensional. Yes, law enforcement must work together to prevent and combat criminal gang activity. But we also must find better ways to intervene early and divert youth from becoming gang members. And those gang-involved youth who commit crimes must have access to a juvenile justice system that both protects society and holds youth accountable for their actions, while also addressing the unique issues that drive kids to join gangs in the first place.

Research shows that many gang members grow up in abusive, neglectful or anti-social households and lack supervision, positive role models or encouragement. They also have higher rates of substance abuse and mental health issues than other teens. These are not excuses for bad behavior, but rather facts that must be addressed if our system of juvenile justice truly intends to rehabilitate, and not just punish.

Relying on other successful community-based anti-gang efforts along with evidence-based guidelines from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the council will develop and implement a comprehensive and collaborative response to suburban gang activity. Our vision is to create safe, gang-free communities, including youth who are safe, educated, connected to their families and schools, and prepared for lifelong success.

If we value our youth, our communities won’t give up until we advance policies, systems and practices that will make this vision a reality.

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Retired Washington State Supreme Court Justice Bobbe J. Bridge is the founding president and CEO of the Center for Children and Youth Justice. To learn more, visit www.ccyj.org.

 

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