Four Democratic N.C. House Representatives introduced a bill that aims to address the rise in hate crimes across the state.
House Bill 596, otherwise known as the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, would increase punishments for those who commit hate crimes, require additional training for law enforcement and prosecutors and mandate establishing a hate crimes statistics database.
The FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program defines a hate crime as a crime that is motivated by the offender’s biases against characteristics such as race, ethnicity, religion, disability status, gender identity or sexual orientation.
“We're really trying to address this problem holistically because people's lives depend on it,” N.C. Rep. Caleb Rudow (D-Buncombe), one of the bill’s primary sponsors and the only Jewish member of the House, said.
The other primary sponsors of H.B. 596 are N.C. Reps. Nasif Majeed (D-Mecklenburg), Maria Cervania (D-Wake), Allen Buansi (D-Orange).
Majeed, the lead sponsor on the bill and the only Muslim representative in the House, said he’s had personal experience with hate and discrimination and wanted to seek out co-sponsors to represent the diversity of North Carolina.
Rudow said his motivation for co-sponsoring the bill stemmed from experiencing violence against the Jewish community.
“Every time I go into the synagogue, we have an armed guard there,” Rudow said. “Because, there have been real attacks on synagogues throughout the country, and we, unfortunately, have to be prepared.”
For Buansi, seeing the rise of hate crimes across the state motivated him to co-sponsor this bill. Particularly, he said a racially-motivated attack several years ago on one of his own constituents in Chapel Hill highlighted the need for stricter legislation.
“I can't see why a reasonable person would not want to address hate crimes with the level of seriousness that it deserves,” he said.
According to the FBI Crime Data Explorer, North Carolina had a record number of reported hate crimes in one year in 2021, which is the most recent year for which data is available. Across the state, 273 hate crimes were reported.
The bill seeks to increase punishments for misdemeanors and felonies motivated by bias.
For example, a Class A1 misdemeanor, the most serious type of misdemeanor that includes offenses such as assault with a deadly weapon, would be reclassified as a Class H felony if found to be bias-motivated. The punishment would then rise to a maximum of 25 months in prison instead of the maximum 150-day sentence for a Class A1 misdemeanor.
Rudow said he hopes an increase in punishments will be a deterrent for people committing hate crimes.
Jovita Lee, policy director for Advance Carolina, said an increase in punishments could provide reassurance for victims that offenders will be held accountable. They said hate crimes will not be completely eradicated because of the bill, but that there could be a decline in the amount of these offenses.
In 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice reported 62.1 percent of hate crimes in North Carolina were motivated by race, ethnicity or ancestry.
“This is decades upon decades upon centuries of violence that has been conducted against these groups, especially Black and Brown communities,” Lee said.
The Hate Crime Prevention Act would require the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys to develop training for prosecutors on how to prosecute hate crimes. The bill would also require the North Carolina Justice Academy to provide law enforcement officers with training on identifying, responding to and reporting hate crimes.
“Law enforcement officers aren't experts at social justice issues,” Lee said. “That's not what they're hired to do. And so they're going to need that additional support and training to even be somewhat equitable or productive in that space.”
If the bill is passed, it will also require the N.C. SBI to create and maintain a hate crimes statistics database to track the number and type of offenses, as well as the identifying characteristics of victims and offenders. Hate crimes go underreported in North Carolina, according to Buansi.
Rudow said the database would be an important tool to assess whether heavier penalties and more training are effectively reducing hate crimes.
The bill had no bipartisan support at the time it was introduced. On April 17, the bill was moved to the House rules committee.
Majeed said he is working on getting traction from the Republican supermajority in the House.
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