On Friday, July 17, 2009 the Senate passed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act as an amendment to the fiscal year 2010 Department of Defense Authorization bill. This provision provides much-needed assistance in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. Unfortunately, on Monday, July 20, 2009, the Senate then added, by voice-vote, an amendment offered by Senator Jeff Sessions (AL) (who had previously opposed the overall hate crimes amendment) that would allow the death penalty to be applied in hate crimes cases in certain circumstances. The NAACP opposes the Sessions amendment because of the irreversible and highly controversial nature of the death penalty and due to the significant doubts about its deterrent effect and clear evidence of disproportionate application against poor people. Moreover, there are serious, well-documented concerns about unequal and racially biased application of the death penalty.
Hate crimes remain a festering and horrifying problem in the United States. This form of domestic terrorism is designed to intimidate whole communities on the basis of personal and immutable characteristics – and can damage the very fabric of our society. Although there are laws on the books that help specifically deter hate crimes and protect their victims, significant gaps remain. Sadly, the number of hate crimes in America continues to increase, and the number of “hate groups” (an organization that promotes hate or violence towards members of an entire class of people) in the United States has increased by 54% since 2000.
Currently, the federal government is allowed to intervene in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes only if they occur on federal property or if the victim was participating in one of six very specific activities, such as voting. The “Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act” (passed by the House of Representatives in April, 2009) and the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act would expand existing hate crime prevention laws and allow the federal government to assist the local authorities in the investigation and prosecution of crimes motivated by hate, regardless of where or what the victim was doing when the crime took place. It would also expand the definition of a hate crime to include those motivated by the victim’s disability, gender or sexual orientation and it would provide money to states to develop hate crime prevention programs.
In short, this proposed hate crimes prevention legislation would allow the federal government to work with state and local authorities to prevent or, if necessary, punish hate crimes to the fullest extent possible. States will continue to play the primary role in the prosecution of hate crime violence, however the proposal passed by the House and Senate will compliment state statutes and assist states in securing the very complicated and expensive cases through prosecution. Both the House and Senate passed versions affirmatively protect freedom of speech and freedom of religion by clearly asserting that to be prosecuted under this law the hate crime must involve acts of violence.
We must now urge the House / Senate Conference Committee, which is to be formed in September and charged with ironing out the differences between the two versions of the legislation, to strip the death penalty language from the legislation before it is brought to a final vote in the House and Senate and then sent to President Obama for his signature.