Federal hate crime bill’s failure makes changes to state law more urgent
AUSTIN Efforts to strengthen the state’s enforcement of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act appear to be more urgent than ever now that the Matthew Shepard Act has stalled in Congress.
The passage of a federal hate crimes law would have placed more emphasis on the need to enforce the state’s six-year-old law that so far has resulted in the prosecution of only nine cases. Only 1,500 hate crimes, which include all categories of bias such as race, religion and “sexual preference,” have been reported since the state law was enacted.
“What we will continue to work on is to see how to strengthen the hate crimes act not only by adding gender identity and sexual orientation in there but also looking at the education of officers and prosecutors,” said Paul Scott, executive director of Equality Texas.
Scott said the removal of the federal hate crimes bill as an amendment to the Department of Defense Authorization bill on Dec. 6 was a disappointment because its passage would have helped the state’s gay activists in their lobbying of the Texas Legislature to amend the law and to implement a study of the law’s enforcement.
A federal law would offer a second court system for prosecution of hate crimes and also provide for assistance by the FBI in the investigation of hate crimes, Scott noted.
“With a federal law I think you would definitely see an opportunity to bolster education and enforcement too,” Scott said.
A congressional conference committee removed the hate crimes act from the defense bill even though it had previously passed the House of Representatives and the Senate with strong bipartisan support because of opposition by hate crimes act opponents and disagreement among lawmakers about war-related provisions of the bill.
The House-Senate conference members concluded the defense bill would not pass with the hate crimes bill present, and they noted President Bush had threatened to veto any measure that include a hate crimes act.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, called the outcome “deeply disappointing” and vowed to continue the quest for a federal hate crimes law during the second half of Congress’ session.
“After more than 10 years and several successful bipartisan votes, it is heartbreaking to fall short this close to the finish line,” Solmonese said in a statement. “However, we are not giving up on efforts to find another legislative vehicle.”
On the state level, Scott said his group was successful in getting a proposal to study the hate crimes law considered in a legislative subcommittee during the last session, but it failed in the full committee. The proposal was sponsored by Rep. Marc Veasey, of Fort Worth, and supported by Rep. Allen Vaught, of Dallas, who was the chair of the subcommittee.
“We working with the legislators to get a hate crimes study going forward so we could get a better idea of what the barriers are to the reporting of and prosecuting of hate crimes,” Scott said.
Scott said his group has used data collected by the state to illustrate to legislators the problems with implementation of the hate crimes law. He noted that officials with some police departments in the state are unaware of the law’s existence, or they are unfamiliar with the characteristics than constitute hate crimes, such
as the use of anti-gay epithets during an assault.
Scott said his group would continue its efforts to strengthen the state hate crimes law in the next legislative session.
“That’s part of our work plan in 2008 and part of our legislative agenda in 2009 not only to look at getting support from legislators for a hate crime study but also looking at how to get some additional data tracking hate crimes,” Scott said.
Data on hate crimes committed against transgender people is currently not kept by the state because the state hate crimes law omits gender identity.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 14, 2007