Expanding the ability of the federal government to prosecute hate crimes when state authorities are unable or unwilling is vital to protect against violent, intolerance-infused attacks, Attorney Eric Holder Jr. said in testimony today before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Justice Department is pushing legislation that would allow the federal government to prosecute defendants whose crimes are motivated because of the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender or disability. The federal law in place now only includes race, color, religion or national origin.
Calling it one of his highest personal priorities since returning to the Justice Department, Holder urged swift passage of legislation that was first proposed more than a decade ago when Holder was the deputy attorney general.
“Perpetrators of hate crimes seek to deny the humanity that we all share, regardless of the color of our skin, the God to whom we pray or whom we choose to love,” Holder said in a statement to the committee. A copy of the statement is here.
The legislation, Holder said, does not replace state prosecution of violent crime outright but serves to bolster the state effort to hold defendant's accountable for biased-based attacks. Also, Holder said the legislation does not touch speech or religion.
Democratic committee members, including the chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, praised the renewed effort to see the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act of 2009 through to law.
“Recent events have made clear that these vicious crimes are a continuing problem,” Leahy said. “The Senate has before it bipartisan legislation that would help law enforcement respond to this problem, and this legislation has stalled for far too long.”
Critics of the proposed legislation, including the ranking member of the committee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), questioned whether the legislation violates the spirit, if not the principle, of double jeopardy. Sessions said Holder failed to persuade him that state prosecutors are not aggressively tackling hate-based violent crime.