OLYMPIA – With reports of vandalism and attacks on people for their race, religion or sexual orientation rising, a Senate panel was urged to sharply increase the penalty for such actions and call them what they are: hate crimes.
The number of reported crimes against certain minority groups grew by 17 percent nationally and 42 percent in Washington in 2017, Rep. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, told the Senate Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday.
He’s the sponsor of a bill that would reclassify bias-based actions now listed as “malicious harassment” as hate crimes if they are committed against a person or group because of their race, immigration status, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or gender identity. The civil penalty, currently at $10,000, could go as high as $100,000.
The bill would also set up a state “working group,” appointed by legislators and the governor, to combat hate crimes.
Synagogues around the state have armed guards after the fatal shootings in Pittsburgh, members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle said. Committee member Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, became emotional when he related taking his 2-year-old son on his first visit to the synagogue last week and having to pass armed guards.
“How do we live in a world like this?” he said.
Reports of attacks against Jewish, African-American and LGBTQ residents occur in far greater numbers than their share of the population and the severity is also increasing, with more weapons and injuries, said Monisha Harrell, board chair of Equal Rights Washington.
“We all know we are better than this,” Harrell said.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, wondered if the number of convictions for hate crimes is also up. He noted television actor Jussie Smollett reported he was attacked as a hate crime but was later charged with filing a false police report.
Last month, two people were detained by police after Smollett reported being attacked, having a noose put around his neck and being doused with a liquid. They were later released without charges being filed, and Smollett was charged with filing a false police report. On Tuesday, the charges against Smollett were dropped with an agreement for him to do community service and forfeit his bond. He maintained he told the truth about the attack, according to the Associated Press.
Padden raised the Smollett case last month when the panel was considering a similar Senate bill. Committee Chairman Jamie Pederson, D-Seattle, countered that the Smollett case was an example of how the system works in sorting out claims, adding that most people know what a hate crime is but fewer understand the term malicious harassment.
Valdez said he didn’t have the statistics handy on convictions, but would check and get back to Padden.
The committee passed a similar Senate bill last month, but it failed to get a vote by the full Senate before a key deadline. The panel will decide whether to send the House bill to the Senate in the coming weeks.
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