Protection From Hate

Monday, May 14, 2007

THE LOCAL Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 (HR 1592) cleared a major hurdle this month when the House of Representatives passed the bill, 237 to 180. Why is this a big deal? Because if it passes the Senate, which could vote on it next month, and gets past a threatened presidential veto, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability would join race, religion and national origin as protected classes under the 1969 federal hate-crimes law.

This bill has been rattling around Congress in one form or another for nearly 10 years. As time passed, it evolved and incorporated good ideas from both sides of the aisle. And while we have long opposed the inclusion of gender and disability, we believe the bill is worthy of support overall. Under the current hate-crimes law, federal prosecution is permitted only if the offense occurred while the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity, such as voting or going to school. This bill would eliminate that requirement. To ensure that the law would be used only in exceptional circumstances, the U.S. attorney general or key senior Justice Department officials must certify in writing that state and local law enforcement were consulted and that the state lacked jurisdiction or did not intend to exercise it, requested federal assistance or did not object to federal intervention. And the bill would provide financial assistance to local law enforcement agencies investigating hate crimes under their own laws.

Opponents warned that HR 1592 would enhance penalties for hate crimes against gays and lesbians, for instance. Truth be told, there have been increased penalties for federal hate crimes based on sexual orientation, as well as the other protected classes, including ethnicity, since the passage of the Hate Crime Sentencing Enhancement Act of 1994. Opponents warned that the bill would prosecute people for "thought crimes." Not true. This bill has nothing to do with thoughts and everything to do with violent action motivated by hate.

And then there are opponents such as Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), who said after HR 1592 passed, "If someone commits a crime, they should be punished for that crime. Period." So true. But crimes that target someone because of his or her race or sexual orientation are more than an offense against that individual. They are crimes that terrorize whole communities.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company