Federal hate crimes law could improve Texas’ prosecution rate

By John Wright | News Editor wright@dallasvoice.com

Despite major victory at the federal level, Texas advocates will continue push to improve state statute

Paul Scott

In the eight years since Texas’ hate crimes statute took effect, there have been more than 1,800 anti-gay offenses reported to police, according to Equality Texas.

Of those, only nine cases have been prosecuted in court as hate crimes.

LGBT advocates said this week they believe this ratio will improve now that President Barack Obama has signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the first major federal LGBT civil rights legislation ever to pass.

Unlike Texas’ 2001 hate crimes statute, which likewise is named for African-American dragging victim James Byrd Jr., the federal law includes not only sexual orientation but also gender identity, giving trans people in Texas protection against hate crimes for the first time.

But the federal law also includes a provision allowing the U.S. Justice Department to intervene when local authorities fail to prosecute anti-gay hate crimes under state statutes. And David Stacy, a senior public policy analyst at the Human Rights Campaign, said he believes this will place pressure on district attorneys in Texas and other states to begin enforcing them.

“No local prosecutor wants to have the feds come in to take care of a case they’re not taking care of,” Stacy said.

Obama signed the federal hate crimes act Wednesday, Oct. 28 as part of the 2010 Defense Reauthorization Act. He later hosted a reception in the East Room of the White House attended by Shepard’s parents and Byrd’s sisters.

“After more than a decade of opposition and delay, we’ve passed inclusive hate crimes legislation to help protect our citizens from violence based on who they love, how they pray or who they are,” Obama said, noting that in the last 10 years, there have been more than 12,000 reported hate nationwide based on sexual orientation alone. “Because no one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hands of the person they love. No one in America should be forced to look over their shoulder because of who they are or because they live with a disability.”

Stacy said the hate crimes act, which took effect immediately, does three main things:

First, it adds sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability to a 1969 federal hate crimes statute, which covered only race, color, religion and national origin.

Second, it removes a provision in the 1969 law saying it applies only if the crime occurs while the victim is engaging in a federally protected activity, like voting or going to school.

Finally, in addition to allowing the Justice Department to step in when they fail to take action, the act provides $10 million in funding for 2008 and 2009 to help local and state authorities investigate and prosecute hate crimes.

Paul Scott, executive director of Equality Texas, noted that the statewide LGBT advocacy group has been working to add gender identity to the state’s hate crimes statute ever since it passed.

Equality Texas has also tried repeatedly to get the Legislature to fund a study of the hate crimes statute to determine why it isn’t being used more often.

But Scott said that while the federal hate crimes act represents a major victory, it doesn’t mean Equality Texas will abandon those efforts.

“It kind of serves as a potential net in terms of those that are falling through,” Scott said of the federal hate crimes act. “Essentially it picks up where the state either chooses to leave off or where the state has left off because of its laws.

“We really need to have a state law that’s fully inclusive and enforceable so that we can not go through that hoop,” he added. “I think that’s a worst-case scenario to have to get the federal government involved.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 30, 2009.

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