Saturday, October 10, 2009

Senate set to pass hate crimes bill


House Passes Hate Crimes Bill; Civil Rights Community Looks to the Senate

The House of Representatives today passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expands the definition of federal hate crimes and removes unnecessary obstacles to federal prosecution.

Currently, the Department of Justice can only investigate hate crimes motivated by the victim's race, color, religion, and national origin when the victim is engaged in a federally protected activity, such as serving on a jury. The House-approved bill authorizes the federal government to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated crimes based on the victim's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.

The bill also gives the federal government jurisdiction over prosecuting hate crimes in states where the current law is inadequate or when local authorities are unwilling or do not have the resources to do so themselves. Local authorities would also receive additional resources to combat hate crimes.

"The House of Representatives today took a strong stand for law enforcement and the advancement of civil and human rights by sending a clear signal that America will not tolerate crimes motivated by bias and hate," Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said. "The civil rights community, which has been fighting for passage of this legislation for 14 years, applauds the House for its vote today. We urge the Senate to approve the legislation without delay."

The House originally passed the legislation in April. The Senate added the legislation to the Department of Defense Authorization bill in July, but also added an onerous amendment making certain hate crimes eligible for the death penalty. The House removed the death penalty language before approving the bill today, 281-146.

The bill was renamed in honor of James Byrd, Jr., who was lynched in Texas in 1998, the same year that Matthew Shepard was the killed in Wyoming in a vicious hate crime.