THE GOOD NEWS is that the level of racially and religiously motivated violence in this area is going down. After an alarming increase in Maryland, for example, from 350 such incidents in 1981 to 505 last year, the figures now look much better. The bad news is that such crimes continue to be a problem at all.
The Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law believes that these incidents should be met by swift and effective criminal prosecutions and that civil suits for compensatory damages should be brought on behalf of victims. Last year, the committee successfully represented a black family in Prince George's County in a case in which the court imposed an injunction and awarded a $26,000 judgment against a former Klan cross-burner. In order to facilitate the bringing of more such civil suits and to inform the public of criminal statutes on racially and religiously motivated violence, the committee, with the assistance of volunteer lawyers, has just issued a handbook on such conduct.
The guide is reassuring. There are, in fact, a number of statutes in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia designed to prohibit and to punish almost any personal or property injury of this origin. There are also civil remedies in all three jurisdictions. And because of last year's disturbing crime figures, other imaginative steps have been taken very recently. Montgomery County has adopted a procedure for using fines to compensate victims and to set up a fund for "tipsters." The county has also set up a special police unit for investigating these crimes. The state of Maryland has begun to keep separate statistics on crimes motivated by racial or religious hatred and has also adopted a school curriculum designed to educate youngsters about the Ku Klux Klan.
The Lawyers Committee would like to see all local jurisdictions adopt a uniform and simplified criminal statute that would encompass all acts of this kind. They also believe stiffer penalties are in order. Next month, the lawyers will meet with the Council of Governments to determine whether a cooperative effort can be made. Even without these proposed changes though, the committee will have accomplished a great public service simply by compiling and publishing this material on the recourse available to victims of racial violence.