Stronger Hate Crimes Law Awaits Return of Congress

Jewish activists involved in the fight against racism, bigotry and prejudice are hopeful that U.S. lawmakers will pass a tougher hate crimes statute after their August recess.

A measure pending in Congress would give federal prosecutors new authority to prosecute hate crimes against women, the disabled, and gay and lesbian Americans.

Current federal law applies only to crimes motivated by race, color, religion or national origin.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act also seeks to make it easier for the federal government to investigate and prosecute hate crimes by extending the Justice Department’s jurisdiction.

Under current law, the Justice Department’s authority is limited to crimes that occur in conjunction with a federally protected activity, such as voting or going to school.

The proposed bill would eliminate that limitation, thereby making it easier for the federal government to prosecute cases like the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, a Jewish student from Australia, during the 1991 Crown Heights riots in New York.

“These are two very important changes that will bring federal hate crime law to where it should be in 1998,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, which has spearheaded Jewish support for the tougher law.

The legislative effort gained some momentum after last year’s White House conference on hate crimes. Now, in the aftermath of the grisly death of James Byrd, a black man dragged to his death in Texas in a hate crime earlier this summer, sponsors of the bill are hoping that incident can help push the legislation through before Congress adjourns the first week of October.

The bill is sponsored in the U.S. House of Representatives by Reps. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), and in the U.S. Senate by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Some lawmakers, however, have maintained that the legislation is unnecessary because dozens of states have laws protecting the groups identified in the bill.

Forty states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws against hate crimes, many of them based on a model law drafted by the Anti-Defamation League. But about 30 states lack protections for crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender or disability, according to the ADL.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has pledged to move some kind of hate crimes bill this year.

“Time and a limited House and Senate calendar” are the biggest obstacles to the passage of such a bill, Lieberman said.

President Clinton endorsed the legislation last year, and the measure has support from 22 state attorneys general, law enforcement organizations and a broad range of national civil rights groups.

A record 8,734 hate crimes were reported to the FBI in 1996 — the most recent year for which data is available. That marks an increase from about 8,000 reported incidents in 1995, but because reporting is voluntary, it remains uncertain whether the numbers reflect an increase in hate activity or simply better reporting.

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