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Few can shake the grisly images evoked by the brutal killing of James Byrd Jr., a disabled black man who was literally torn to pieces after being dragged to his death earlier this year by three white men in Jasper, Texas. The senseless assault sent shock waves across the country and refocused the national spotlight on the issue of race-based hate attacks in the U.S.
The only thing that may be more shocking than the crime itself is that, under current law, the attack against Byrd would be difficult to impossible to successfully prosecute as a hate crime.
Current legislation addresses hate crimes based on race, color or religion. But unbeknownst to many, the law is severely limited in that victims must also be participating in one of six federally protected activities in order for a legally defined hate crime to occur. These activities include enrolling in or attending any public school or college; participating in any state benefit, service, or program administered; working or applying for employment; traveling on any interstate commerce facility; and protecting your freedom of religion and your right to vote. Why is this factor so important? Because when a crime is officially established as a hate crime, enhanced sentencing guidelines automatically kick in.
So why, then, are members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees dragging their feet on legislation that would enhance the ability of state law enforcement agencies to prosecute hate crimes as well as expand the federal government’s jurisdiction?
The Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1998 would expand that law to include crimes based on bias against someone because of gender, sexual orientation or a disability, and eliminate the six federally protected activities as limiting factors. It would also expand the federal government’s jurisdiction so that it could provide greater assistance to local law enforcement agencies by providing the tools they need to fight hate crimes–such as evidence gathering and examination. It would also provide funds toward prevention and prosecution of those who recruit youths to commit violent crimes.
The legislation has met with resistance on both sides of the aisle for a number of reasons. Some Republicans question whether sexual orientation should be protected. The legislation has also raised problems for Democrats like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California), who’s concerned about violating First Amendment rights.
"Serious defenders of First Amendment rights would not like freedom of speech to be abridged in ways that would cause someone to be sentenced because they said they hate someone," says Waters. "It’s a tough situation. I’ll defend the KKK’s right to say they hate me because I want that same right. So I’d be hesitant to vote on it."
As the 105th Congress draws to an end, its focus will be on passing appropriations bills to avoid a government shutdown, the tobacco bill and campaign finance reform. The Hate Crimes legislation will likely be reintroduced during the next session. "Obviously they