WASHINGTON, Oct. 19 (JTA) – Efforts to strengthen federal hate crimes legislation came to an abrupt halt this week, when Congress abandoned a bill that had strong backing from Jewish groups. The proposed legislation sought to give federal prosecutors new authority to prosecute hate crimes against women, the disabled, and gay and lesbian Americans and to make it easier for the federal government to investigate and prosecute hate crimes by extending the Justice Department’s jurisdiction. Current federal law applies only to crimes motivated by race, color, religion or national origin. A spate of high-profile hate crimes, some targeted at Jews, had generated new momentum for the legislation, known as the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which Jewish groups had been urging Congress to enact since 1997. But it was not enough to overcome Republican opposition in Congress. The measure was passed in the Senate in July as part of its appropriations bill funding the Commerce, Justice and State departments. But it was not included in the House version of the bill. On Monday, House and Senate negotiators, meeting to iron out differences in the two bills, approved a final spending bill without the hate crimes provisions. President Clinton, who had urged passage of the legislation, criticized congressional Republicans for dropping it. The move dims the possibility that Congress will pass hate crimes legislation this year, prompting disappointment from Jewish activists. Reva Price, Washington representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said Jewish activists who had pushed for the legislation are disappointed that Congress “didn’t want to take this opportunity to put their money where their mouth is” and pass legislation that says “hate crimes are not acceptable in this country.” Jewish activists said they would look for other vehicles to pass the legislation – it is also included in a bill that targets violence against women. “This is not going away,” said Richard Foltin, the American Jewish Committee’s legislative director and counsel. “It is an important initiative.” But they acknowledge that it will be difficult as Congress seeks to finish its work on the budget and then adjourn for the year. Activists said there is broad, bipartisan support for the tougher measures, but a coalition of those opposed to including the measure in the spending bill prevailed this week. Republican lawmakers, who outnumber Democrats on the conference committee, dropped the measure for a number of reasons, including their belief that the legislation would create special classes of victims. Others said the provisions should not be considered in a spending bill but rather by Congress’ Judiciary committees. Still others cited confusion with a competing measure, introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R- Utah), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that Jewish groups said didn’t go far enough. A similar bill was defeated in the Senate last year amid opposition from conservatives, who argued that it designated special classes of citizens, particularly gays and lesbians, who were already protected under existing state laws against violence. 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. Last year 7,755 hate crimes were documented by all but four states across the country, according to FBI figures released yesterday. The number – which includes race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and ethnicity – represents a slight decrease from the 8,049 incidents reported in 1997. The FBI’s figures also show that the number of reported religion-based crimes increased slightly in 1998 to 1,390, with nearly 80 percent – 1,081 – of those crimes directed at Jews or Jewish institutions, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Since the reporting of the crimes by local law enforcement agencies is voluntary, it remains uncertain whether the numbers reflect an increase in hate activity or simply better reporting.
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