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OPINION

Massachusetts needs a hate crime law

Our current hate crime statutes are critically ineffective.

A vigil was held in Cushing Square in Belmont for alleged hate crime victim Henry Tapia. Dean S. Kapsalis, 54, allegedly used a racial slur before driving his pickup truck into Tapia on a Belmont street in January, according to prosecutors.
A vigil was held in Cushing Square in Belmont for alleged hate crime victim Henry Tapia. Dean S. Kapsalis, 54, allegedly used a racial slur before driving his pickup truck into Tapia on a Belmont street in January, according to prosecutors.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

On the streets, on public transportation, and in neighborhoods, people are being violently attacked simply for who they are.

Acts of hate have been burned into the American consciousness. In Massachusetts, hate has not strayed far from home.

In 2015, two Boston brothers beat and urinated on a Latino man, telling police, “Donald Trump was right: all these illegals need to be deported.”

In 2017, a Moroccan American grandmother was assaulted on the MBTA on her way to Ramadan services. Her attacker told her to “go back to her country.” He was found guilty of assault and battery.

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In 2021, a Black and Latino man was allegedly called a racial slur and then run over by a man in a pickup truck.

Fear spread in our most vulnerable communities as we witnessed an escalation in hate-based violence and watched white supremacist rhetoric find a home in Donald Trump’s White House and on our social media platforms.

This rise in violent expressions of hate strikes at the heart of our society. From anti-Asian violence to attacks against immigrants, from anti-Semitism and Islamophobia to violence against Black people, indigenous people, and other people of color, from misogyny to hate against the LGBTQ community — we cannot let these crimes become commonplace.

Instead, we need to acknowledge that these incidents are happening in our communities, call them out, and address them immediately. These are hate crimes and we should prosecute them as such. Perpetrators must be held accountable.

But Massachusetts’ current hate crime statutes are critically ineffective. We have two laws that overlap with each other in confusing ways, fail to set clear boundaries for what conduct is prohibited, and don’t provide judges, prosecutors, and juries clear guidance as to what makes a hate crime a hate crime. The laws also fail to protect women, immigrants, and others as targets of hate crimes.

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Equal protection under the law needs to be definitive and effective, especially in the face of mounting intolerance. For the past year, the attorney general’s office and our partners in the Legislature have been developing a fix.

Here’s what we propose: We’ve drafted legislation that clarifies the classes of people protected so that everyone is equally protected from hate-based violence. The bill clearly defines the elements of certain crimes and their penalties so that the courts have the clarity to treat hate-based violence with the seriousness it deserves. The bill also sets appropriate and clear potential penalties that are proportional to the kind of offense committed, while providing judges discretion in sentencing and taking into consideration repeat offenses of hate crimes.

Finally, the bill enshrines in statute what has long been clear in case law — that a hate crime occurs when a crime is committed in part or in whole because of the victim’s membership in a protected class. It does not have to be the root cause of the crime, nor does it have to be the only reason the crime was committed. If someone is targeted at all for who they are, it should be prosecuted as a hate crime.

Criminal prosecution is only one tool in the fight against hate and intolerance. We need to support robust responses to hate. That means focusing more resources on education to prevent hate in our schools and communities, and investing in multilingual and culturally appropriate supports for survivors and their communities, including mental health services. We should ensure that reporting channels are accessible and law enforcement has the training and language skills to respond in a culturally sensitive and inclusive way to incidents of hate. We need to take a holistic approach that involves listening to affected communities, addressing systemic racism and inequity, and creating shifts in our culture.

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Let’s be clear — this proposal will not cure our society of racism. As a society, we’ve only just begun to reckon with the systemic racism woven into our institutions.

But as one piece of the puzzle, changes to our hate crimes laws are long overdue. Acts of hate don’t impact just the targeted victims. They terrorize entire communities. We need to work together to name hate where we see it, to ensure accountability, to support victims, and to continue the conversation to find solutions. We must be active in the face of hate.

Each of us should be free to live without fear of persecution. The law must be clear about what constitutes a hate crime and to ensure that we have the resources to prosecute these crimes effectively.

Massachusetts must stand together to defend our many vibrant and diverse communities from acts of hate and intolerance.

Maura Healey is the attorney general of Massachusetts. State Senator Adam Hinds represents the district of Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden. State Representative Tram Nguyen represents the district of Andover, Boxford, North Andover, and Tewksbury.

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