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Propelled by a nationwide surge in hate crimes, lawmakers in several states are working to deter potential offenders with harsher punishments.
Bills in New York would, among other things, make cemetery desecration a felony, and a Connecticut bill promises to be the most comprehensive hate crime legislation to date by introducing a sweeping collection of new statutes.
In Alabama, lawmakers have introduced legislation to classify threats against houses of worship and schools as acts of terrorism. In Illinois, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has pledged to support Democratic-sponsored legislation that would eliminate coverage loopholes and introduce a civil component to hate crime cases.
The wave of activity comes in response to a spate of hate crimes, including bomb threats made against Jewish Community Centers and the shooting of two Indian men along with a good Samaritan in a Kansas bar. In March, James Harris Jackson traveled to New York and allegedly killed 66-year-old Timothy Caughman, a black man, with a sword in what a prosecutor has said was a racially motivated murder.
In addition, a 19-year-old dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, who is Jewish, was arrested by Israeli authorities the same month in connection with the waves of hoax threats against Jewish Community Centers, schools and synagogues over the last six months.
According to the most recently released FBI crime statistics, hate crimes around the nation have been on the rise, increasing by 7 percent from 5,479 incidents in 2014 to 5,850 incidents in 2015. Anti-black hate crimes rose by 7.6 percent from 2014 to 2015 — from 1,621 incidents to 1,745.
Anti-Jewish incidents saw a similar rise, jumping from 609 to 664 from 2014 to 2015, a 9 percent shift. Anti-Muslim incidents saw the largest relative increase, rising by about 67 percent, from 154 in 2014 to 257 in 2015.
In Illinois, a new bill seeks to eliminate loopholes that could prevent a hate-crime designation, the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, a Democrat, told NBC News. Under current law, a swastika painted on a synagogue could be considered destruction of private property instead of a hate crime. The bill also introduces community service requirements and an educational component.
Illinois has, thus far, avoided highly publicized incidents like those in New York and Kansas, but Kifowit said some residents had seen a rise in racially motivated bullying in schools and that there was a growing need for residents to feel safe.
"There's this undertone of very hateful gestures and verbiage,” Kifowit said. “I think it’s very important that we all come together and realize that in our society we’re multicultural and that there really is no place for hateful actions against other individuals regardless of their religious affiliation, the way they look — anything."
New York’s cemetery bill awaits a vote in the assembly after sailing through the Senate without a single dissenting vote.
Alabama’s bill, introduced on March 16, eschews traditional measures by charging anyone who makes a threat against a religious institution or a public or private school with making a terrorist threat, a charge that can carry a prison sentence of 10 years. The bill has yet to move out of committee.
Like Illinois', Connecticut’s bill looks to eliminate loopholes. Should the law be passed, committing a hate crime against a group of persons, instead of an individual, would be reclassified as a felony. Various hate crimes would also become felonies. Threatening a house of worship, religious community center or other religious institution, already a class D felony, would be elevated to a class C felony.
Under current Connecticut law, gender identity or expression are protected, but gender itself is not. The bill would also expand that protection. It would also create a Hate Crimes Advisory Council and impose mandatory minimum fines of $1,000 on bias crimes. Connecticut Republicans in the state Senate have expressed support for hate-crime legislation.
"We hope they’ll be a form of deterrent and an example to others who are thinking of going down that road to engage in this kind of offense,” Democratic Connecticut Sen. Martin Looney, the bill’s principle sponsor, told NBC News. “We need to be on record as indicating that we will have zero tolerance for this."