Harrisburg moves to enhance PA hate crime statutes

On Oct. 31, the Pennsylvania House in a bipartisan vote, passed a legislative package that, if enacted, would expand and strengthen the state’s anti-hate crimes statutes. The package, consisting of three separate bills, were co-sponsored by Reps. Dan Frankel (D-Dist. 23-Allegheny County) and Napoleon Nelson (D-Dist. 154-Montgomery County), and must now make their way to the State Senate.

Taken from a press release from Frankel’s office, “The legislative package includes:

  • HB 1027 – New Protections under Ethnic Intimidation Statute (Frankel, Nelson) would amend Pennsylvania’s Ethnic Intimidation Statute to ensure protections for victims targeted because of their race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, ancestry, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, age and disability, including autism. The bill would also provide victims with a civil cause of action against offenders. The bill passed 116-86.
  • HB  1024 – Hate Crime Training for Law Enforcement (Frankel, Nelson) would provide our law enforcement officials with the tools they need to properly investigate, identify and report hate crimes. The bill passed 112-90.
  • HB 1025 – Reporting System for Educational Institutions (Nelson, Frankel) would require postsecondary institutions to offer online and anonymous hate crime reporting options for students and employees. The bill would also encourage training for K-12 school employees in identifying and addressing hate incidents. The bill passed 111-91.”

As a whole, the bills would expand the classes of people protected by the hate crimes statutes, e.g., persons of Asian and Islamic descent, LGBTQ+ people (especially trans people), and autistic people. The bills will also mandate that post-secondary schools adopt enhanced protocols, devised by the PA Dept. of Education, for reporting hate crimes, including an anonymous online option for victims. And they will mandate that the State Police, in consultation with state agencies and community groups, develop improved training programs for officers in dealing with hate crimes, programs to be used by all governmentally authorized law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania.

In a press release announcing the package’s passing, Rep. Nelson commented on the need for these enhancements to the hate crimes statutes. 

“Look at the headlines about what’s happening at our colleges, and you’ll see why kids don’t feel safe on campus — especially if they’re black, brown, Jewish, Muslim … the list of groups experiencing the rise in ethnic intimidation continues. I wish I could say our legislation will help eradicate hate. It won’t — that’s a different conversation. But House Bill 1024 and House Bill 1025 would help us better understand and recognize ethnic intimidation, which often goes unreported.

“Even when a report is made, police often fail to properly categorize it as a hate crime. We must strengthen reporting and training processes for school staff and police officers to help correct this, so we can collect the data to help us understand the indicators and experiences that lead young folks to embrace hateful ideology.”

In a speech before the full House in support of the legislative package, Rep. Frankel said, “Hatred takes many forms in this country, but the evil behind it is all but identical. We can’t legislate what is in people’s hearts, but we can take steps to lead by example, and to ensure that mechanisms are in place to support targeted communities across Pennsylvania who are harmed by hate-fueled criminal acts.

“[This legislation] would also give targets of hate crimes what they already have in 34 other states — the ability to bring a suit in civil court.”

Companion legislation has been introduced by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, which also includes several separate bills (SB1024, SB63, SB650 and SB639) which overlap and echo the House package, but with subtle differences that would have to be ironed out in reconciliation should the bills also pass the Senate. SB650, specifically sponsored by Sen. Costa, is exactly equivalent to HB1025.

In a legislative memorandum attached to the Senate anti-hate crimes package, Costa wrote, “Incidents like the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh and the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia have brought hate crime incidents close to home.

“According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there were a total of 8,263 hate crime incidents against 11,126 victims in 20-20 reported across the nation. In 2019, 7314 hate crime incidents involving 8,559 hate crime offenses were reported in the U.S. The 2019 numbers represented the third consecutive year of over 7,100 incidents, which have also become increasingly violent, according to a November 2020 preview edition report by the Center for Study of Hate & Extremism at the California State University, San Bernardino. The 2019 increases also represent a nearly 3 percent increase in hate crimes over the previous year and the highest on record since 2008.

“…The Tree of Life tragedy shone a light on the shortcomings in Pennsylvania law relating to hate crimes and ethnic intimidation. Unfortunately, the Tree of Life incident is not the first and [will] clearly not be the last crime committed in the Commonwealth fueled by hate. After reviewing current laws and and talking to various state and local agencies, many deficiencies in our state statutes have been identified.”

Currently, the General Assembly is in recess, so further progress on these bills will have to wait until the Senate reconvenes on Nov. 13.

Legislation to expand protections to cover LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities was signed into law by Republican Governor Tom Ridge more than 20 years ago, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the changes unconstitutional on technical grounds in 2008. The current bills are aimed at correcting that.

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