June 13, 2006
Revisiting the James Byrd hate crime law

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, the author of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Act of 2001, looks at the law's effect and concludes it could and should do more.

Texas prosecutors rarely use the hate crimes statute. Since the hate crimes law was passed in 2001, 1,617 hate crimes have been documented in Texas - 363 in Harris County - and only seven have been prosecuted under the hate crimes act.

Why don't prosecutors want to apply this law? It's not because they don't want the maximum punishment for these sinister criminals. My friends in law enforcement tell me they won't apply the law because it is not tough enough and that is why, come this next legislative session, I am ready to strengthen the law so it will get used effectively. I am proposing the following changes next session: creating a hate crimes registry so that the public has record of hate crimes perpetrators; raising the minimum punishment for hate crimes convictions; imposing a penalty or fine as a term of punishment; imposing cultural sensitivity training for those convicted of a hate crime; and allowing the victim of a hate crime to have their identity protected.

I confess, I've always been a bit skeptical of hate crime legislation. I'm a believer in allowing judges to use their judgment when it comes to imposing sentences. Legislative restrictions on judicial latitude, especially (but by no means solely) in drug cases, are a major contributor to overincarceration and the increasingly expensive burden of an aging inmate population. I'm leery about anything that might add to this.

Having said that, some cases do call out for assurance against undersentencing. I believe we can do a reasonable job of defining those cases and ensuring that all necessary steps are taken to protect the public from those who present extra dangers to it. I support the proposals Sen. Ellis outlines here, in particular the provisions to track hate crimes, and to keep the victims' identities secret. I look forward to seeing what the final version of his bill looks like and having a productive discussion about it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 13, 2006 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack