Renewing her case to overhaul the state’s hate crimes statute, Attorney General Maura Healey on Tuesday argued that existing law allows for effectively “no difference” in punishment between a racist assault and a punch thrown among feuding bar-hoppers.
Healey urged legislators to advance a bill she and supporters have been unsuccessfully pressing for months that would strengthen the penalties prosecutors could seek in hate crime battery cases and update the law with additional protections and data-collection requirements.
“A white supremacist who targets and attacks a Black person because of their race is treated the same as a person who punches somebody in a bar fight. That’s not right,” Healey said at a virtual Judiciary Committee hearing. “And if the penalties are the same for a simple battery and a hate crime battery, which they are under current law, here’s what happens: as a prosecutor, you charge the battery. You don’t charge the hate crime, because you have to prove the additional element of intent, and that’s hard to do.”
Healey and the bill’s sponsors have been struggling to get legislative leaders to advance their proposal (H 1819 / S 1051), even as a string of high-profile incidents has thrust the issue into the spotlight both nationally and in Massachusetts.
Healey said in her testimony on Tuesday that incidents of white supremacist propaganda increased 87% in the Bay State last year, one of the highest rates in the country.
Between March 19, 2020 and June 30, 2021, the Stop AAPI Hate group tracked 9,081 incidents of anti-Asian violence or harassment nationwide.
Rep. Tram Nguyen and Sen. Adam Hinds filed the bills in February, but the proposal only surfaced for its initial public hearing on Tuesday, midway through the two-year lawmaking session.
The pair of Democrat lawmakers said the existing hate crimes statute is unclear, which makes it more difficult for prosecutors to fully punish some of the most heinous offenses.
“Sadly, our hate crimes laws are not only weaker than those in other states, but too poorly drafted to be easily understood,” Nguyen said. “When a law is confusing, it’s rarely enforced.”
The legislation would increase the penalties imposed for some hate crime charges, impose new data collection requirements to monitor the impact of hate crimes in Massachusetts, and expand the list of protected classes to include immigration status, gender, gender expression and sex.
“They weren’t there and that’s been a significant gap, and also these groups have been shown to be particularly vulnerable,” Healey said of those groups.
The bill would create a new charge for those with previous convictions who commit hate crimes with a deadly weapon that leads to bodily injury.
The version before lawmakers Tuesday has been pared back from its original draft to respond to concerns about “potential unintended consequences,” Healey said. It now takes a narrower approach focused only on penalties that Healey said are “really necessary,” including battery and repeat offense charges.
Sponsors also added language that would allow some violators to be redirected away from incarceration toward what Hinds called “restorative justice” options when ordered by a court or through probation.
Hinds said that change would “ensure that this bill does not run counter to our important efforts at criminal justice reform.”
“In doing so, we think there’s an opportunity for education and dialogue between alleged offenders and those who they have harmed,” he said. “It presents a strong alternative to incarceration in cases where it’s relevant.”
Several other bills before the Judiciary Committee target similar updates to the state’s hate crimes statute, including one from Rep. Michelle DuBois (H 1556) that would add “gender” to the existing list of protected statuses.
DuBois told the panel that two-thirds of states explicitly list gender in their hate crimes statutes, and Massachusetts is among those who do not.
“Violence against women has been in our community in Massachusetts, and misogyny and subjugation of women is something we’ve lived with,” the Brockton Democrat said. “We need to start having our laws in Massachusetts reflect the type of respect we require and that we expect in our daily living in public spaces.”
The Healey-backed legislation also includes language similar to a standalone bill from Sen. Cynthia Creem (S 959) that would apply the hate crimes statute to any incident that damages rented property.
Creem, a Newton Democrat, said the existing definition prevents law enforcement from applying hate crime charges in cases where a victim does not outright own the property that is damaged, potentially excluding large swathes of people.
“Someone could spray a racial slur on a home that you rented and they would not be guilty of a hate crime,” Creem said.
In 2019, the most recent year with annual data available from the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, the agency said Bay State law enforcement reported 376 hate crime incidents.