US Attorney General Calls For Stronger Hate Crime Legislation

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

By Dolores M. Bernal, NEWS JUNKIE POST

At a hearing on Thursday, US Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee that it was “unfortunate” that eleven years had gone by since he first proposed that a stronger federal hate crime bill be passed in Congress. Holder also said that the country still suffers from “horrific acts of violence” and urged that legislation to protect Americans from “bigotry and hatred” be passed.

“Today, just as when I first testified in 1998, bias-motivated acts of violence divide our communities, intimidate our most vulnerable citizens, and damage our collective spirit,” Holder told the panel. “Indeed, the number of hate crime incidents per year is virtually unchanged from when I first testified before this Committee.”

The hate crime legislation being considered is the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act (S. 909) – named after the 21-year-old college student from Laramie, Wyoming who was beaten and tortured by two other males in 1998 over his perceived sexual orientation.

Federal laws that protect people based on age, sex, religion, and ethnicity already exist in the books. The new legislation would expand the 1969 Federal Hate Crime bill to include new measures for investigating hate crimes, and it will prohibit acts of violence against a person’s perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

“Hate crime is a serious problem in the United States, and we have been concerned by certain omissions in the government response,” noted Elisa Massimino, Human Rights First’s CEO and Executive Director on a statement issued today. “The adoption and implementation of S.909 is an important step toward a comprehensive response to the problem at home, and toward ensuring continued U.S. leadership to combat the scourge of hate crime globally.”

Hate crimes have been on the increase, according to Holder. He pointed to the most recent one, the shootings at the Holocaust Memorial Museum just a few weeks ago by a white supremacist.

The FBI reported 7,755 hate crime incidents in 1998 and 7,624 in 2007,
the most current year for which the FBI has compiled hate crime data. Since the year I first testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on hate crimes legislation, there have been over 77,000 hate crime incidents reported to the FBI, not counting crimes committed in 2008 and 2009. That is nearly one hate crime every hour of every day over a decade.

Brian Walsh, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, also testified at the hearing. Walsh said that S. 909 is “too broad” and that it violates “constitutional federalism” by imposing enforcement of the law unto local authorities.

Walsh’s quote:

The [new Act’s] hate crime offenses would be superfluous and likely to be counterproductive, for nearly all states. [Hate crime] offenses has always been criminalized in all 50 states.”

But Holder defended the legislation against claims that it would violate federalism by saying that state and local authorities will continue to enforce hate crime legislation and that they will be the ones investigating such crimes. The bill, holder said, would provide these agencies with more funds and technical assistance to “better address the problem.” Only on “occasion” said Holder, would Federal agencies be involved in investigating hate crimes — for example, if the offenders committed such crimes in multiple jurisdictions.

“The Department of Justice has carefully reviewed S. 909 and has concluded that its enactment would not unduly burden Federal law enforcement resources or infringe upon State interests in such prosecutions,” Holder said. “…I strongly urge passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act of 2009. We must do more than simply deplore horrific acts of bias-motivated violence…The time is now to provide justice to victims of bias-motivated violence and to redouble our efforts to protect our communities from violence based on bigotry and prejudice.”

Eric Holder’s testimony on S. 909

Eric Holder at Senate Judiciary Committee on 6/25/09. Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Bill Hearing.