There was great joy and tremendous relief in the East Room of the White House last week when President Barack Obama signed into law the "Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act" (HCPA). Enactment was long overdue – wrongly delayed by distortions, outright lies about its provisions, and veto threats by President George W. Bush.
Far from the false labels by a vocal minority of conservative religious voices, ("Pedophile Protection Act" and "Hate Christians Act" to name just two) the HCPA is essential legislation that closes gaps in existing federal authority to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated crimes. This update of a 40-year old federal hate crime law encourages partnerships between state and federal law enforcement officials to more effectively address hate violence. The new law also provides limited authority for federal investigations and prosecutions when local authorities are unwilling or unable to act.
We have been privileged to lead a broad coalition of civil rights, religious, educational, professional, law enforcement, and civic organizations working in support of this legislation for more than a decade. Bipartisan majorities in both the Senate and the House had approved this legislation on a number of occasions, but never the same language at the same time. This year, the support of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., provided the critical final piece.
The enactment of this important legislation – the most important, comprehensive, and inclusive hate crime law in the past 40 years – is a sweet victory.
But in the immortal words of (mythical) "West Wing" President Jed Bartlet, "What's next?"
Well, first, the Justice Department and coalition members should partner to train federal and state investigators and prosecutors about the new authority provided under the law – and about the availability of new resources to address hate violence. The HCPA, foxr the first time, authorizes the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute certain bias-motivated crimes based on the victim's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. Prior federal law did not provide authority for involvement in these categories of cases at all.
Second, we must do more to improve hate crime reporting. Since the enactment of the 1990 Hate Crime Statistics Act (HCSA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation has published an annual report on hate crimes in America. The HCSA has sparked improvements in hate crime response – since in order to effectively report hate crimes, police officials must be trained to identify and respond to them. The FBI report is now the most authoritative snapshot of hate violence in America – though clearly incomplete, with thousands of police agencies not reporting hate crime data at all.
Still, in 2007, the Bureau reported more than 7,600 bias-motivated incidents – almost one hate crime in America in every hour of every day. The FBI has also documented that hate crimes committed against Hispanics and those perceived to be immigrants has increased in each of the past four years – and hate crimes committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation increased to its highest level in five years in 2007.
Clearly, these hate crime numbers do not speak for themselves. Behind each and every one of these statistics is an individual or a community targeted for violence for no other reason than race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or national origin. The 2008 HCSA report is due to be released later this month.
Third, there is a growing awareness of the need to complement tough laws and more vigorous enforcement – which can deter and address violence motivated by bigotry – with education and training initiatives designed to reduce prejudice. The federal government has a central role to play in funding program development in this area and promoting awareness of bullying prevention and anti-bias education initiatives that work.
Though much delayed, enactment of the HCPA now comes at a critical time. The election of the first African-American president, a deep economic and housing crisis, a broken immigration system, and faster and anonymous means of communication among like-minded individuals have combined to form a near-perfect storm of grievances for extremists and hate group organizing.
HCPA advocates and our champions in Congress have earned a moment to smell the roses. We can celebrate our success – finally! – in enacting this important new law.
Then let's roll our sleeves and move on to the next steps in making American more equal, fair and safe.