Hate Crimes Law Expansion Signed

President Barack Obama has signed NASW-supported legislation that expands federal authority to investigate and prosecute hate crimes based on victims' actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Prior to Congress passing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act as an amendment to a defense spending bill, federal jurisdiction had been limited to attacks based on victims' race, color, religion or national origin.

"We must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones, but to break spirits — not only to inflict harm, but to instill fear," Obama remarked at an Oct. 28 White House bill-signing ceremony. "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."

While primary hate crimes investigation and prosecution responsibility rests on state and local authorities, the federal government can provide assistance and investigate and prosecute hate crime cases when a locality is unable or unwilling.

All but five states — Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming — have laws that provide increased penalties for hate crimes. They vary in penalty and scope. For instance, the laws of just 30 states and the District of Columbia include attacks based on victims' sexual orientation. Just 12 states and the District include attacks based on victims' gender identity.

Arizona State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a social worker, attended the signing ceremony. Sinema said she sees the act as a vital tool for law enforcement and social workers to combat violence motivated by hate or bias.

"This new law also will bring about more awareness about these types of violent crimes, and aid social workers to create better futures for youth and families," she said.

Sinema said hate crimes touch close to home for everyone: "Here in Arizona, a young man named Amancio Corrales was the victim of a brutal hate crime. He was murdered in Yuma after appearing at a local bar as a female impersonator. Many of us worked for years to see his crime designated as a hate crime, and to ensure that local law enforcement received the support needed from the federal government to investigate this crime and bring the perpetrators to justice. Amancio's case is not unique, though; sadly, this type of hate crime happens time and time again each year in our country."

She has sponsored legislation in her state to expand hate crimes to include misdemeanor crimes motivated by hate or bias.

According to the FBI's most recent statistics, law enforcement agencies in 2008 reported 7,783 hate crime incidents — of which 3,992 were motivated by race; 1,519 by religion; 1,297 by sexual orientation; 894 by ethnicity/national origin; and 78 by disability. (Three were classified as "miscellaneous.") Experts believe, however, that numbers likely are higher given that some hate crimes go unreported and information-gathering requirements vary by state.

"Hate crimes are exceedingly prevalent and pose a significant and unwarranted threat to the comprehensive participation of all Americans in a democratic society," said NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark. "NASW recognizes that bigotry cannot simply be legislated out of existence; still, this law is a constructive and equitable response to a problem that continues to plague America."

The act also ends a provision of the federal hate crimes law that allowed federal involvement only when the victim was attacked while engaging in a federally protected activity, such as serving on a jury or attending public school.

The law is named for two victims of hate crimes, both killed in 1998: Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old who was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead near Laramie, Wyo.; and 49-year-old James Byrd Jr., an African American who was tied to a pickup truck and dragged to death in Jasper, Texas.

Two days after signing the hate crimes bill, Obama approved legislation to reauthorize the federal Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program for another four years. That program provides financial assistance as a "payer of last resort" to poor and uninsured people with HIV/AIDS so that they can get the medical care they need.

The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act of 2009 also provides a 5 percent annual increase in funding for the program, which more than half a million people in the U.S. rely on for medical treatment.