Juvenile Justice and Teen Gang Members

Juvenile Justice and Teen Gang Members
PASCO, Wash. -- At just 17 years old, Jose Contreras-Gomez leaves little doubt about where his loyalties lie. His face, neck, and head are covered with gang tattoos including the word "Pasco" scrawled across his scalp. Court papers said he was the one who shot a man in Chiawana Park last Sunday.

He might be just a teen, but the violent charges automatically bumped him into superior court. And of all the gang members arrested at the park, Contreras-Gomez is the youngest. His rap sheet goes back to when he was just 13 including third-degree assault of a law enforcement officer, attempted assault with a deadly weapon, obstruction of justice, attempted robbery, attempting to elude police, possession of stolen property, driving with a suspended license and taking a vehicle without permission.

Franklin County prosecutor Steve Lowe said, “These people on this list are not unknown to us. It’s not the first time they've been before us."

KEPR Action News poured over the records to find Contreras-Gomez could be part of an increasing local trend: teens doing the dirty work for older, more seasoned gang members, knowing the punishment is less severe when prosecuted. It's a loophole, Lowe knows all too well.

He explained, "There are some in this community that want juveniles treated like juveniles but when they start gang activity, my position is they should be treated like adults."

The real problem isn't the laws, it's the money. Last year, Franklin County commissioners dramatically cut the juvenile court budget, laying off three detention officers. KEPR Action News found, that caused a ripple effect. This week, commissioners were presented a packet, showing overcrowding at the juvenile detention center is almost a daily occurrence. We found only 35 teens can stay at the center at any one time which means they're often booked for various crimes are released just a few days later.

Too often, it means, kids go right back to the gang lifestyle.

"You can't arrest your way out of a gang problem. You have to have other resources,” Lowe continued.

Resources are limited. To make sure we heard from all sides, KEPR talked to commissioners about plans for the juvenile detention center. They promised to consider pulling from other departments to beef the budget back up. The prosecutor's office also just landed a $100,000 grant to fight gangs, which will save a deputy prosecutor position and part-time support staff position.

As he headed back to jail, Contreras-Gomez made a final plea to his family for a lawyer. And he'll need one. After so many run-ins with the law, and at this pace, a life tied to gangs could mean a lifetime in prison.