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Hate-crimes Penalty Bill Clears Hurdle in the House

Criminals motivated by hate for their victim’s race, creed or color may find themselves with more time than they bargained for to mull over their crimes.

A House Judiciary panel approved a bill Tuesday that would increase by about a third the sentences of convicted criminals motivated to commit their crimes by bias against a person’s religion, sexual orientation, race, color, national origin, ethnicity or gender.

The measure is hailed by the bill’s backers as a potent weapon in the war against hate crimes. But others question the measure’s constitutionality.

“I think this bill is a piece of the hate-crime puzzle and part of the demonstrable importance of the federal response to hate violence,” said Michael Lieberman, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia have statutes against hate violence, said Jess Hordes, ADL’s Washington representative.

“We believe increasing penalties for federal crimes motivated by prejudice will have a deterrent impact — and send the message to both perpetrators and victims that society will not tolerate these odious crimes,” he said.

“Tougher penalties also make it more likely that victims will report such offenses — and that prosecutors will pursue convictions.”

The action in Congress comes against the backdrop of recent Supreme Court decisions regarding hate-crimes laws in several states. The high court agreed in December to review a Wisconsin ruling striking down that state’s hate-crimes statute. That legislation is similar to the current House bill.

OPPOSED BY SOME GROUPS

Last summer the Supreme Court struck down a St. Paul, Minn., ordinance that banned the display of a Nazi swastika or a burning cross. Hordes said supporters of the Wisconsin law and the House bill draw a distinction between it and the provisions of the St. Paul statute.

The St. Paul rule criminalized conduct that showed bias, while Wisconsin’s law and the congressional proposal call for stiffer sentences for crimes already on the books, when those crimes are motivated by bigotry.

The House bill, introduced by Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), is also backed by the American Jewish Congress, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Organization of Chinese Americans, Japanese American Citizens League and the Fraternal Order of Police.

However, the American Civil Liberties Union and People For the American Way, a liberal government watchdog group, both say the measure has constitutional conflicts.

Since evidence concerning the felon’s motivation would be heard at sentencing hearings, it would not receive the same beyond-a-reasonable-doubt scrutiny as does the question of whether or not the person committed the crime, People for the American Way contends.

Schumer’s bill is identical to a measure passed by the House last year that died in the Senate as part of an omnibus crime package opposed by the Bush administration.

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