This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
A smart strategy can go a long way toward crippling street gangs. Attorney General Rob McKenna looks like he’s come up with one.
A bill he’s proposed to the Legislature would heighten criminal sanctions against gang violence, but its most promising section focuses on civil sanctions. The key tool is what amounts to a chill-out order that would force street toughs to keep their heads down or get out of Dodge.
Here’s how it works:
The county prosecutor or municipal attorney seeks a protection order for a precisely defined area plagued by gang activities. He or she must offer convincing evidence that specific individuals belong to the outlaw neighborhood association that commits most of its crimes there.
The people targeted get a hearing in which they can contest their inclusion.
Then comes the sweet part. With the court’s approval, the city or county can impose fines as high as $5,000 on certified gangsters who persist in the customary gang nastiness in the protected area.
McKenna’s bill specifically empowers the police to fine identified thugs who:
• Associate or communicate with fellow identified gang members, flash gang signs or wear gang get-ups.
• Possess firearms, drugs, spray paint and other graffiti tools.
• Trespass, intimidate people or violate curfews set by the court.
• Recruit new gang members; coerce people into committing crimes; contact minors on their way to and from school.
• Violate any law whatsoever.
The nice thing about fines is that – unlike criminal charges – they’re fairly easy to make stick. Their certainty can be a greater deterrent to petty criminal activity. Tacoma’s heavy fines for illegal fireworks, for example, have proven more effective at suppressing the city’s pyromaniacs than the distant and unlikely prospect of successful prosecution.
Failure to pay the fine – which isn’t hard to prove – can land a scofflaw in jail.
Jurisdictions in California, most notably Fresno, have pioneered these protection orders with considerable success.
Claims that the strategy is somehow unconstitutional don’t bear scrutiny. The law would provide the due process civil penalties require, and the definitions of gangs, gang activities and gang membership are all based on existing law.
There are no panaceas for the plague of street intimidation, and this law promises only to put a healthy dent in it. But in some neighborhoods, the dent could be big enough to cut shootings and help citizens to walk without fear on their own sidewalks. That’s reason enough to pass it.