Bill backed by Equality Texas seeks to determine why there have been only 9 prosecutions in 8 years despite more than 1,800 incidents
LGBT rights advocates were celebrating this week after a bill that would establish a committee to study the effectiveness of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act passed out of the Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence on an 8-2 vote.
Since the hate crimes law was enacted in 2001, there have been more than 1,800 bias-based crimes reported to the Texas Department of Public Safety, according to the statewide LGBT advocacy organization Equality Texas. But only nine of those cases were actually prosecuted as hate crimes.
HB 616, written by Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth with the help of Equality Texas, would "basically ask the state to set up a committee to review how the James Byrd Jr. act has been implemented, and what are some of the issues surrounding the implementation of the law," Paul Scott said Thursday, March 12, a day after the bill was approved in committee.
"The committee would look at any possible bias in reporting hate crimes. It would make a note of when crimes are initially labeled as hate crimes and then the hate crimes charge is dropped before prosecution. The whole idea is to see how the law is used and if it is used, and what are the barriers to its implementation and successful strategies to get it used more often," Scott explained.
"The committee would also look at the education issues, at what needs to be done to educate officers on recognizing and reporting hate crimes, and what needs to be done to educate prosecutors on charging hate crimes and pursuing that prosecution," he added.
The bill now goes to the House Calendars Committee, chaired by Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano, to possibly be set for consideration by the full House. Scott said membership on the Calendars Committee is a "mixed bag," which could present another hurdle for the bill.
"We will be educating our supporters about the Calendars Committee and what needs to happen there to get the bill before the full House for a vote," Scott said.
The Calendars Committee consists of eight Republicans, including McCall, and five Democrats.
But Scott said he is still optimistic HB 616 will get on the House calendar. He said Equality Texas "had some success" working with McCall to get a bill on the calendar in the 2007 legislative session, and "that committee was much more difficult to work with then."
The presence on the committee of Democrats Garnet Coleman of Houston, Norma Chavez of El Paso and Eddie Lucio III of San Benito will be helpful, as will the fact that the Texas Democratic Party last weekend named HB 616 as one of the top 15 bills it wants to see passed this session.
"With that combination, we definitely have an opportunity to move this bill forward," Scott said.
The Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence, chaired by Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, includes eight Democrats and three Republicans.
All the Democrats on the committee voted in favor of HB 616. They are: Reps. Gallego, Terri Hodge of Dallas, Carol Kent of Dallas, Robert Miklos of Mesquite, Joe Moody of El Paso, Paula Pierson of Arlington, Allan Vaught of Dallas and Hubert Vo of Houston.
Republican Reps. Wayne Christian of Center and Allen Fletcher of Tomball voted against the measure, while Republican Debbie Riddle of Houston was absent.
Christian is vice chair of the Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 13, 2009.