‘You’re saving lives’: Gov. Inslee praises Yakima youth gang violence intervention program

YAKIMA, Wash. — When Governor Jay Inslee visited Yakima three years ago, community leaders pitched him an idea for a program to reduce youth gang violence through early intervention.

Inslee helped to get them the funding they needed for the Walk About Yakima program and visiting the city again on Tuesday afternoon, he got a firsthand look at the impact it’s had on violent crime.

“You’re saving lives here,” Inslee told community leaders. “You save one young person from a life of gang and prison or death and that’s a real success.”

The program is a collaborative effort, starting with the Yakima Police Department’s gang unit using its focused deterrence program to identify youth most likely to participate in gang violence.

Once the kids are identified, the Dispute Resolution Center of Yakima and Kittitas counties — the backbone organization for the WAY program — reaches out to those kids to provide them with assistance.

Among other things, that assistance includes mentors specifically trained by the University of Washington Department of Psychiatry of Health to help young people work through the decision to leave the gang.

Throughout the process, partners communicate with the Yakima County Juvenile Justice Center about any potential charges or opportunities for diversion to other programs to youth involved in WAY.

The program has reportedly provided 28 kids with at least six months of services since it was established in 2020. Program officials said their numbers would be significantly larger but at this time, they’re only serving the most at-risk youth and their resources are limited.

One of the most integral parts of the WAY program is its dedication to only using “credible messengers” as mentors — people who have personal, firsthand experience of being in a gang and what it’s like to leave it to start a new chapter of their life.

However, that leaves the program with a very narrow pool of potential mentors. Currently, the program consists of three mentors, two service coordinators, one system coordinator and a program manager.

“Essentially there’s two pieces, there’s the carrot and the stick: the police are the stick,” Murray said. “If you’re going to continue to conduct illegal activity, you’re going to deal with the police.”

Murray said that makes the WAY program the carrot in that scenario.

” What they say is, ‘What would it take for us to offer you for you to change your life?'” Murray said. “And they’re very successfully doing that and the numbers show it.”

According to Murray, the city has seen a 17.4% reduction in aggravated assault from 2020 — when the WAY program began — to 2021. He said he believes the program and police arresting frequent offenders, have contributed to that decrease.

Murray said with the epidemic of juvenile gang violence in Yakima, a program like this makes all the difference. He said while many think of human trafficking in terms of young girls getting forced into sex, there’s another kind of trafficking.

“What people don’t realize is that boys are trafficked for violence,” Murray said. “Gangs are using young boys to conduct very violent behavior to further the interests of the gang, knowing that there’s very low penalties for juvenile offenders.”

Inslee said he’ll be using the WAY program as a model for other communities across the state that are also struggling with gang violence.

“This is probably the most at risk group of young people in the state and you’re helping,” Inslee said. “That’s impressive.

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