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Massachusetts leaders push for hate crime overhaul

A sign at the Rally & Run To Stop Asian Hate in Hopkinton last month.
A sign at the Rally & Run To Stop Asian Hate in Hopkinton last month.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

In the wake of brutal attacks on Asian Americans in New York and Georgia, Massachusetts leaders are pushing to strengthen the state’s hate crime laws.

A bill filed in February to clarify and fortify Massachusetts’ existing law is gathering support on Beacon Hill as state and federal leaders weigh policy changes aimed at stemming hate-fueled violence. State Representative Tram Nguyen, state Senator Adam Hinds, and Attorney General Maura Healey are proposing a series of technical fixes to the Massachusetts law, which they said is rarely used in part because it’s confusing.

“Hate crimes are not just crimes against an individual, they’re crimes against whole communities. These crimes are meant to terrorize communities,” Nguyen said. “If we don’t take them seriously, what message are we sending to community members?”

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The push comes amid a national debate over how hate crimes are defined and prosecuted — a debate that includes questions about whether prosecuting individual offenders is an effective means of addressing structural racism.

Proponents say hate crime prosecutions send a message about a community’s values and deter future offenders. But others, including some Asian American community leaders in the Boston area, say charging individual hate crime cases is not the most effective response to a systemic problem, and fear that harsher policing and sentencing measures could end up delivering more harm than good for communities of color.

The past year has marked a frightening rise in bias-motivated attacks. The group Stop AAPI Hate tallied almost 3,800 incidents of anti-Asian hate from March 2020 to March 2021. The number of anti-Asian hate crimes in Boston more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino.

Hate crime laws allow prosecutors to seek additional penalties when crimes are motivated by bias against a certain group. In Massachusetts, the law currently applies to crimes motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

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The proposed changes would add gender and immigration status as protected classes, increase the penalties on repeat offenders, delineate clearer definitions for certain legal terms, and allow for harsher maximum sentences for severe offenses without creating mandatory minimums.

One crucial tweak: clarifying the standard for an offender’s intent. Currently, the law says a hate crime occurs “because of” a victim having a certain identity — misleading language, according to Asha White, deputy chief of the Massachusetts attorney general’s office’s criminal bureau, because prosecutors can pursue hate crime charges even if bias is only part of the offender’s motivation.

White recalled a case in Boston years ago when a transgender woman was attacked with a bottle, and had slurs yelled at her, after being involved in a traffic dispute with another driver. The offender wasn’t charged with a hate crime, White recalled, because some involved in the case saw road rage as the motivation. But if bias played any role, the hate crime statute should apply, he said.

“We know that our laws do not meet the moment, and that’s what this hate crimes legislation is seeking to achieve: giving us the tools to allow us to rid our communities of the kind of pernicious hate that we see,” Healey said Wednesday at a town hall meeting on the proposal.

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To some community leaders, though, prosecuting hate crimes is not the best method for addressing the broader structural ills that undergird the violence that makes headlines. Some Asian Americans may not be comfortable reaching out to police to report hate crimes due to language barriers or immigration status, they said, and prosecution can take place only after a crime has occurred.

“Hate crime legislation alone addresses individual actions but not these broader systemic issues,” said Lisette Le, executive director of the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development.

Prosecuting hate crimes may seem like a straightforward way to address racist violence — but it does not address racial inequities that are less visible but more pervasive, said Angie Liou, executive director of the Asian Community Development Corporation.

“People understand an elderly woman getting punched and stomped. That’s horrific,” Liou said. Viral videos of such attacks make prosecuting hate crimes seem like a straightforward solution, but it does not address inequities in housing and health that are less visible but more pervasive, she said.

“We know there are residents we deal with who don’t have language access, who don’t speak English and have trouble getting vaccines. It makes me angry,” she said. “But those problems don’t translate neatly into some sort of image or short video that goes viral and that people can readily understand.”

Nguyen said the bill is not intended to be a panacea, and stressed the need for a multi-faceted approach including economic and gender justice. ”This is just one tool in the toolbox,” she said.

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Others say any attempt to up criminal prosecutions carries the potential for harm. The hate crime bill “is damaging and does not transfer an iota of power to communities that have been systemic targets of white supremacy,” said Janhavi Madabushi, executive director of the Massachusetts Bail Fund and a longtime member of the Asian American Resource Workshop.

“Legislators should not bring forth bills that expand prosecuting powers and criminal charges — this is harm that ultimately vulnerable communities will be tasked with undoing,” Madabushi said. “Survivors of racist violence are asking for a different approach.”

Lawmakers said they hope to hear more feedback as the bill is refined.

Thirty House lawmakers and eight senators have already signed on in support of the bill, but it has yet to be assigned to a committee during the early phase of the legislative session.

Spokespeople for House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen E. Spilka emphasized the importance of condemning hate crimes, but neither took a firm position on the bill in response to questions from the Globe. A spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker said Baker will “carefully review any legislation that reaches his desk.”

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Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan has backed the bill, and also proposed another reform to the state’s hate crime laws, expanding protections for renters who are targeted at their homes.

“Currently, the law allows for us to charge a person for damaging property only if the victim who they intended to intimidate owns that property. This does a tremendous disservice to victims,” Ryan said in March. “People deserve to feel safe in their own homes regardless of whether they own the property.”

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Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.