The surge in hate incidents, particularly against Asian Americans, has led lawmakers to enact laws to strengthen the state’s hate crime law, provide better training to recognize bias, and redefine penalties for violating the law.
Rep. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover, and Senator Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, have partnered with Attorney General Maura Healey to protect women and immigrants as targets of hate crimes. Escalation penalties for repeat offenders; Combine civil rights and hate crime laws into one section of the law; allow a harsher conviction for serious crimes without creating mandatory minimum sentences; and create clearer definitions of hate crimes.
“Not only do we want more clarity on the law to determine exactly what hate crimes are so that they can be applied more fairly and accurately, but we also want to provide additional training for officers to understand what biased crimes are,” said Nguyen said.
Current Massachusetts hate crime law is defined as one committed based on an individual’s race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
Hinds said the rise in hate crimes against African Americans, Asian Americans, LGBTQ + and Jewish communities highlighted the need to propose changes to the law in force.
“The urgency to oppose violent bigotry has felt increasingly poignant in recent years,” Hinds said. “So it feels important to move this quickly.”
The rise in anti-Asian hate crimes has increased over the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The national organization Stop AAPI Hate received 67 data from Massachusetts on anti-Asian discrimination from March 19 to December 31 last year – 3,800 incidents nationwide.
In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League reported 2,107 hate crimes against Jewish people nationwide. This was the highest number of hate crimes the Anti-Defamation League has tracked in its history. According to the human rights campaign, federal data as of November 2020 account for 16.7% of hate crimes based on sexual orientation. In 2020, blacks were more affected by hate crimes than any other group in the US, according to an FBI report.
Support for the changes is not universal.
Rep. Peter Durant, R-Spencer, said the bill violates the first amendment and allows for a subjective way of defining attacks.
“I think whenever we are tinkering with First Amendment safeguards or safeguards that are given to us under the Constitution, we have to be very careful,” Durant said. “While this bill does some good things in terms of increasing the penalties for certain crimes, I think it is a very precarious step in limiting your first adjustment rights.”
Nguyen made it clear that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment.
Janhavi Madabushi, director of the Massachusetts Bail Fund, said tighter prosecution of violence does not uproot racism or prevent violence.
“Legislators should not propose bills that expand law enforcement powers and criminal charges if they want to fight racism,” Madabushi wrote in an email. “This is damage that ultimately vulnerable communities must undo.”
There must be systemic solutions to combat violence in all its forms, said Carolyn Chou, executive director of the Asian American Resource Workshop. Increasing penalties could have unintended consequences that would harm color communities, she said.
“It has been shown time and time again that more law enforcement agencies are not preventing violence but adding additional levels of violence and harm,” Chou wrote in an email. “We need to highlight community response and support, the intense dialogue between oppressed communities and transformative justice, and broader solutions such as language access, data justice and ethnic studies.”
Hinds said the new bill would do this by improving the laws currently in place and giving judges discretion to pass judgment “appropriately” and “appropriately.” Legislation will improve entire communities by tackling violence, he said.
“We also make it clear that we are not talking about First Amendment-protected expressions of hatred,” Hinds said. “Instead, it is clear that we prohibit violent, threatening and destructive behavior.”
Rep. Tackey Chan, D-Quincy, supports the proposed changes because he believes the current law is vague and leaves too much interpretation as to whether or not an attack is a hate crime. Many minority groups and immigrants make up Quincy, and Chan said the underreporting of hate crimes shows a clear need to “clean up” the law.
“I think it’s a good first step in this hate crime conversation,” said Chan. “I like to think of myself as an understanding person trying to learn, but there are certain things that are like that, let’s call them what they are. I mean, when you target people to kill people for who they look like or who they are. “
The bill has been referred to the legislature’s judicial committee for public hearing and review. Thirty House Legislators and eight Senators signed in support of the bill.
On April 22nd, the US Senate passed a hate crime law in response to the recent surge in anti-Asian discrimination. The bill, sponsored by Senator Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, would expedite the Justice Department’s review of COVID-19 hate crimes.
The bill also provides for the DOJ to provide guidance to state and local law enforcement agencies on how to set up online hate crime reporting procedures in multiple languages and expand culturally literate awareness campaigns.
For Nguyen, the passage of the new hate crime law ensures biased crimes are prosecuted and allows prosecutors and the judiciary to have clear guidelines for investigating motivational factors.
She also acknowledged that creating a new hate crime law is only part of the solution to these pressing issues.
The bill is not meant to address the hatred and violence, Nguyen said. In order to counter the roots of human violence, there must also be a racist and culturally integrative education, a despolation of prejudices and prejudices of the people, more resources for victims of hate crimes and new training for police and spectator interventions.
“This bill is designed to hold perpetrators who have harmed communities accountable and to ensure that we declare the hate crimes so we can signal to communities that they matter,” she said.
Kami Rieck writes for the Boston University Statehouse Program Gazette in Boston.
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