Michigan Democrats eye hate crime reform, look to add LGBTQ protections
- Michigan Democrats hope to add LGBTQ, disability protections to the state’s anti-hate crime law
- Current law on hate crime has not been updated since its establishment in 1988
- One 2021 report by a think tank noted law enforcement could use hate crime reform to disproportionately prosecute minorities
LANSING — After adding LGBTQ protections to the state’s anti-discrimination law, Michigan Democrats are eying the next area of civil rights reform: Hate crime laws.
A trio of Democratic lawmakers, along with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, introduced legislation Wednesday morning to expand the definition of a hate crime in state law, adding sexual orientation, gender identity and other characteristics to the protected classes against hate crimes and strengthening penalties for those crimes.
Rep. Noah Arbit, D-West Bloomfield, told reporters Wednesday the legislation allows hate crimes to be treated with the “seriousness and severity that they are due.”
“Hate crimes are always committed to send a message,” Arbit, one of the bill sponsors, said Wednesday. “Now is our chance to send an even stronger message in return: That we will not tolerate hate violence anywhere in the state of Michigan.”
The legislation comes as the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported a record-high number of hate crimes in 2021, Vox reported. Antisemitic incidents reached the highest level in 2022, with 3,697 incidents reported nationwide, according to the Jewish civil rights advocacy group Anti-Defamation League. And in 2021, the FBI recorded 746 attacks against Asians, the most in three decades, the Washington Post reported.
The overall number of hate crimes reported in Michigan has not seen as steep of a rise in recent years. A total of 667 hate crime incidents were reported in Michigan in 2008, according to annual reports from the Michigan Incident Crime Reporting. That number dropped to 373 in 2010 — the lowest point during the 12-year period — but slowly climbed to 533 in 2018, the data shows. In 2019, 524 incidents were reported in Michigan.
Similarly, the number of hate crimes against people reported in Michigan also experienced ups and downs over the past decade. The number of hate crimes against people peaked at 460 in 2012, dropped to 240 in 2014 and then slowly rebounded to 352 in 2018, according to a data analysis by the Detroit Free Press.
The four-bill package would update the state’s “ethnic intimidation” law, which has not been amended since it was passed in 1988. The law was written to honor Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was beaten to death in Detroit in 1982 by two white men who blamed him for American job loss to Japanese imports.
The law, however, does not recognize assaults based on sexual orientation, gender identity, age or physical or mental disabilities as hate crimes.
The legislation introduced Wednesday would define a “hate crime” as intimidation, harassment, bodily injuries, mental anguish, property damage or threats against others based on race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, age, ethnicity or national origin.
“This change will better recognize all individuals who are targeted,” said Rep. Kristian Grant, a Grand Rapids Democrat who is also sponsoring the legislation.
Under the legislation, those who commit hate crimes would be charged with a felony punishable by up to two years in prison or up to $2,000 in fines, or both. More severe hate crimes, such as gang violence, assaults against minors, gun-related activities or actions causing severe bodily or mental harm, would result in up to five years in prison or up to $10,000 in fines.
Additionally, the legislation would establish the “Institutional Desecration Act,” which would penalize the defacement and vandalism of churches, cemeteries, schools, museums and other cultural and communal centers.
Those who damage property under the bills could face penalties starting with up to 93 days in prison or up to $500 in fines. Penalties could increase to up to 10 years in prison or $15,000 in fines if much more damage is done.
The penalties under the proposed legislation mirror existing penalties for malicious damage of properties, Arbit noted. The point of the bill is not to apply harsher penalties for vandalism against churches, but “calling these crimes by the name that they deserve,” Arbit argued.
“If you see on the news that someone was prosecuted with malicious destruction of property for defacing a synagogue, that doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter of what the crime actually was,” he said. “It obfuscates the actual core of the crime.”
Some critics of the reform, however, have cautioned that such legislation may not work as well as intended. In 2019, Kai Wiggins, a former policy analyst with the advocacy group Arab American Institute, questioned the consequence of harsher sentencing on people of color in an “unjust system.” Similarly, a 2021 report conducted by the nonprofit advocacy group Movement Advancement Project warned that some states disproportionately listed Black people as offenders even though the majority of crimes were committed by white people.
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