"No one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hands of the person they love," Obama said in East Room reception, surrounded by joyous supporters. "No one in America should be forced to look over their shoulder because of who they are, or because they live with a disability."
Civil rights groups and their Democratic backers on Capitol Hill have tried for a decade to expand the hate crimes law, but fell short because of a lack of coordination between the House and Senate, or opposition from President George W. Bush. This time, the bill got through when Democrats attached it to a must-pass $680 billion defense measure over the protests of Republicans. Obama signed the combined bill in a separate ceremony earlier on Wednesday.
While most of the attention has rightly focused on the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender in the bill, some of the bill’s most important provisions are its expansion of the circumstances under which federal authorities can take up prosecution of hate crimes. It includes a provision allowing the Department of Justice to prosecute hate crimes in instances when it can certify that a state has refused to follow through on a hate crimes prosecution. The legislation also enables the DOJ to provide grants to local law enforcement to pursue the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes – a key incentive for increased attention at the local level.
But the real work comes in the enforcement of this legislation. Getting jurisdictions—particularly some in the South—to accurately report hate crimes is no easy task. For years running states like Alabama have reported very few or, as in the case of Mississippi in 2007, no hate crimes. Much as I’d like to believe that this figure is accurate, I am, shall we say, deeply skeptical. States that make it a priority to ensure that local jurisdictions accurately report hate crimes will have higher numbers. So Maryland and Iowa for example provide detailed reports of incidents in their jurisdictions based on all of the covered categories.
Attorney General Holder will need to apply pressure and oversight on states that have allowed lax reporting. As it is nearly 8,000 hate crimes are reported each year. The vast majority still involve race-based hate crimes perpetrated by white offenders.
The passage of the hate crimes bill is only the beginning of the process. Accurate reporting enables us to identify those specific counties and jurisdictions that warrant increased attention and scrutiny, and where prosecutorial resources should be deployed. Having passed this important legislation, Congress should provide close and regular oversight of the Department’s success in taking on hate crimes.
—SHERRILYN A. IFILL