Are Utah’s hate-crimes laws weak, limited?

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When the Utah Legislature passed the state’s first hate-crimes legislation in 1992, sexual orientation was excised from the language, despite protests from several lobby organizations and individuals. Instead, the law protected other immutable and mutable characteristics, including race, religion and sex.

Despite a strong drive in 1999 by Sen. Pete Suazo and community pressure after Matthew Shepard was brutally killed in Wyoming for being gay, Utah lawmakers ignored the call for increased protections for gays and lesbians. Opponents of the effort, including Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka, urged lawmakers not to protect “immoral and illegal behavior.”

In 2006, The Criminal Penalty Amendments bill was enacted which would allow judges to consider, in sentencing, bias against queer people as an aggravating factor. However, the Utah Court of Appeals deemed the law incomplete and essentially useless, calling it an “exercise of rights” law, not a hate-crimes protection law.

Prosecutors rarely take advantage of the Utah statutes because of unclear language, said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill during a recent public meeting. The current hate-crimes legislation will allow a judge to increase a class C misdemeanor to a class B and a class B to a class A when hate targeted toward a specific community is proven to be the motivator, Gill said. But this tool is rarely used and a judge would not have to increase the sentencing. Also, if the offense is already a class A misdemeanor, there is no increase made available to the judge.

“Where this law becomes useful, and what you don’t hear about is how the board of pardons and judges will take this into consideration,” Gill said. “Four years will turn into six or seven and its practical application has probably been profound.”

However, public awareness that comes with a sentencing is one of the most important avenues of preventing future crimes, Gill said.

“We want to deter crime, but we also are demonstrating values we hold as a society,” Gill said. “That public assertion is so important to the soul of the community, that’s a part as a prosecutor, I look at and why I hold them accountable.”

With a nearly useless statute on the books, the number of hate crimes is on the rise in Utah. And the latest FBI report in 2010 indicated 16 hate crimes had been committed based on sexual orientation. This was up from the earlier 2009 report when nine hate crimes based on sexual orientation were reported.  Nationally, there were 6,624 reported hate crimes in 2010 and 19 percent were motivated by bias toward gays and lesbians, according to the report.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. The law expanded existing federal hate-crime laws to apply to crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It also dropped the prerequisite that the victim be engaging in a federally protected activity. These protections would be applied to federal crimes and would allow for an increase in sentencing by the judge.

For more information about hate crimes, contact LGBT Public Safety Committee representative Sgt. Julie Jorgensen at  julia.jorgensen@wvc-ut.gov.

Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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