Washington State: National Lab on Crime

Residents have passed an initiative mandating life in prison for people convicted of a third violent crime. But officials are also developing strategies to get at the roots of youth violence.

A WEEK ago today, 16-year-old Zacariah John Spears was shot dead in front of Christmas shoppers by a youth-gang member at a suburban mall.

Mr. Spears was not involved in a gang, but police are investigating whether the friend he was with, who had gang ties, may have been the intended victim. This murder is the latest sign here of violence gone out of control.

Fueled by public concern over the dramatic rise in crime, Washington State is becoming a laboratory for crime-prevention strategies ranging from ``lock 'em up'' to ``help them out.''

Echoing national trends, juvenile violence in the state rose 92 percent between 1984 and 1992, almost twice as much as violent crime in general, according to a Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs index of four key offenses: murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.

During the same period a broader state crime index moved up more slowly: 29 percent for all ages, and 21 percent for juvenile crimes. Here in the state's largest city, this year has seen almost one-third more murders than 1992, many of them committed by young people with guns. Tough state initiative

The surge of violence is troubling in a state that traditionally tries to fix problems before they get out of hand. Efforts that emerge from Washington's mix of liberal and conservative advocates promise to be closely watched nationwide, since crime recently polled higher than health care or jobs as the issue of top national concern.

One big step came last month, when Washington residents voted 3 to 1 in favor of Initiative 593, mandating life in prison for people convicted of a third serious violent offense.

The ``three strikes and you're out'' measure will affect primarily adult criminals, who, despite the rise of youth crime, still account for almost 93 percent of the state's most-violent crimes. A juvenile can earn a ``strike'' if tried as an adult.

Dave LaCourse, a leading campaigner for 593, says the initiative's most important message is that state residents want to do more than talk about stopping crime. He says that he plans activism on juvenile justice issues this year.

The coming months will signal the degree to which the momentum of 593 will be channeled into further anticrime measures here.

Among the steps under discussion by government bodies:

* Gov. Mike Lowry (D), who opposed 593, is talking up a ``youth agenda'' that he says will be his top priority for the legislative session starting in January. The program will blend tougher juvenile justice and gun control with a stepped-up effort to uproot the seeds of violence through an advertising campaign, anger-management and mentoring programs in schools, and job and recreation opportunities for kids. Some state lawmakers are working up their own proposals.

* Newly reelected Seattle mayor Norm Rice, who was challenged on the crime issue by tougher-than-thou challenger David Stern, is offering ideas similar to Mr. Lowry's, including expanded services for families and teens and getting guns off the streets. ``The only way to stop violence is by doing both,'' Mr. Rice asserted in delivering his city budget this fall. He is moving to appoint a new police chief, Norman Stamper from San Diego, a long-time advocate of close police-community relations.

* To help students protect themselves without endangering lives, one school board is considering allowing children to carry pepper gas to spray at attackers.

The day after the Nov. 2 election, the National Rifle Association described the passage of Initiative 593 and other NRA-backed measures as a sign that Americans were rightly choosing stringent sentences as a more valuable deterrent to crime than gun control.

``Yesterday Americans ... rejected 20-year-old failed solutions like gun control and alternatives to prison,'' NRA chief Wayne LaPierre Jr. said. ``They voted for tougher prison sentences and the abolition of parole in Virginia, a tough three-time-loser law in Washington State, and prison building and an end to bail for dangerous criminals in Texas.'' Impact of 593

Though some critics say state laws similar to 593 have failed to cut crime rates, Mr. LaCourse says no other law comes close to Washington's in severity. The closest, in Illinois, ``covers about 25 percent of the crimes we do,'' says LaCourse, an advocate with Washington Citizens for Justice.

Seventeen states have some sentence ``enhancement'' provision for repeat offenders, but these are ``seldom used, seldom feared, and might as well not be there,'' he contends.

If the put-'em-away strategy fails to deter crime, taxpayer costs could be high. Washington is currently building a new 1,000-bed prison every 18 months to lock people up at a per capita cost of $25,000 a year, the governor's office says.

But Ed Striedinger, president of the Seattle Police Officer's Guild, says he recently overheard six inmates of King County Jail, standing in a lineup, discussing which crimes would be ``strikes.'' One inmate said, ``I'm getting outta this state.''

The national anticrime bill now in Congress contains a version of ``three strikes and you're out.'' Yet, ironically, the measure is seen as less critical at the federal level than at the state level, since most violent crimes are not tried in federal courts.

Washington State, like Congress and numerous other states, is also considering new gun-control measures.

The NRA argues that many of the firearm restrictions being proposed would simply make it harder for law-abiding citizens to protect themselves, while failing to block criminals' easy access to black-market firearms. A recent Justice Department study confirms this point.

Some measures, however, may help fight crime and could even win support from the gun-owners lobby, whose clout remains big despite recent passage of a nationwide waiting period for all handgun purchases.

Key ideas being floated here by Governor Lowry and LaCourse would enhance criminal penalties for youths who possess guns or use them in committing crimes. Such measures would address the many youths who take guns from older family members or obtain them illegally.

The NRA's liaison for the state, Brian Judy, says the group supports restrictions on gun use by minors - and particularly harsher sentencing - as long as there are ``reasonable exemptions,'' such as for young people using guns in ranching or target practice.

A nationwide ban on juvenile possession of firearms, with exemptions, is in the Senate version of the federal anticrime bill; it is unclear whether this will remain in the final legislation. Getting at the roots

In the end, some experts say, neither better gun control nor ``three strikes and you're out'' will solve the violence problem, though both may help in concrete ways.

``We're going to have to do it ourselves,'' says Seattle City Council member Margaret Pageler. As an example, she says young people must learn to say ``I'm not going to ride [home with you] if you've got a gun in the car.''

Lt. Sue Rahr, commander of the nearby King County Police gang unit, agrees that individuals have a key role to play. She says rising violence stems from a get-even ``mind-set'' that has become pervasive in the last few decades.

``These kids have turned out exactly the way we've raised them,'' Ms. Rahr says.

To help parents stay in touch with children, she calls for a youth curfew. Also, while not advocating broad censorship, she says that with her own two sons, ``I've made it very clear to them why I won't buy those [violent video] games'' that have become popular .

Lowry, too, is ``very concerned about ... video games,'' says Clarence Moriwaki, spokesman for the governor. In one game, players act out attacks on women, he notes. ``That's a jump beyond the already gruesome violence that's displayed'' in other, more passive media such as television.

Like the governor, Rahr calls for more programs to keep kids out of trouble, but also for greater penalties for those who choose to commit crimes. She says the penalties should come in the form of a sweeping overhaul of the juvenile justice system, not just a few changes in sentencing rules.

Ms. Pageler agrees that, in the absence of stronger punishments, ``young people learn to disrespect the criminal justice system.''

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