U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is calling on Congress to pass a new, expanded hate crimes law that would permit the federal government to prosecute cases of violence based on disability, gender and sexual orientation. Democrats have been trying to update the current hate crimes law for more than a decade, which already makes it a federal crime to attack someone because of their race, creed or color.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy reminded everyone listening to Thursday's hearing of the recent shooting death of an African American security guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., saying hate crimes are still a problem in America.
"We know two weeks ago, just blocks away from this hearing room, a man entered the National Holocaust Memorial Museum, he shot and killed Steven Johns, a security guard," said Senator Leahy. "It was a cowardly action of a white supremacist, it resulted in the death of a 39-year-old husband, father of an 11-year-old son."
Attorney General Eric Holder said getting the law passed after 11 years of attempts in Congress is a personal priority for him and for President Barack Obama.
"The president and I seek swift passage of this legislation because hate crimes victimize not only individuals, but entire communities," said Eric Holder. "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 the person who we choose to love."
The bill being debated, the Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Prevention Act, is named after a gay man killed in the state of Wyoming in 1998. It would allow federal prosecution of violence committed because of gender, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity of the victim.
Several Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned whether new legislation is necessary, since violent crimes are usually prosecuted by state and local officials. Here is Ranking Republican Senate Judiciary Committee member Jeff Sessions.
"Murders occur all over America every day," said Senator Sessions. "Robberies, assaults, rapes, burglaries occur every day, and those are handled by our state and local jurisdictions. Probably 90 plus percent of criminal prosecutions in America are done by our states and local governments."
Sessions said the original civil rights act was based on a demonstrated need, because in some parts of the country, state and local authorities were reluctant to prosecute certain crimes because of racial prejudice. He said he remains unconvinced that there is a similar need today on cases related to gender or sexual orientation.
Attorney General Holder responded that there is still a need for federal involvement on occasion, if localities lack the will or the resources for effective investigation or prosecution of hate crimes.
Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigations shows the number of hate crimes per year has remained relatively unchanged for the past 10 years, with 7,624 hate crime incidents in 2007, the last year for which figures are available. Attorney General Holder said statistics show hate crimes against Hispanics have increased for four years in a row.