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State hate crime law needs a 2022 redo

As extremism grows, delivering justice means closing loopholes and expanding the law’s reach.

A memorial for retired Air Force veteran Ramona Cooper and retired State Police Trooper David Green, at Winthrop Town Hall in July. Both were slain in an apparent hate crime.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The cancer that is hate is on the rise — the list of incidents grows ever longer, the victims more diverse, even technology has become an enabler.

When a hate crime captures the public’s attention, the cry among those justifiably appalled is always: “Do something.” But the moment fades, an assault becomes just another assault — the racial epithet or ethnic slur, the permanent wound to the psyche too often forgotten by all but the victim.

Massachusetts is not immune to the disease:

▪ In October, a Muslim couple were attacked in a Trader Joe’s parking lot in Framingham, their car damaged as the assailant yelled racial slurs.


▪ In September, racist e-mails were sent to Black student organizations at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

▪ In June, an Air Force veteran and a retired state trooper, both Black, were shot and killed in Winthrop. Police found the shooter’s journal — filled with white supremacist rhetoric.

Sure, Massachusetts has had some form of hate crime law on the books since 1990, when law enforcement reporting requirements kicked in. The most recent annual data, for 2019, put reported incidents of hate crimes at 376 — up from 351 the previous year.

The scope of the law has broadened over the years. But like many laws, it has failed to keep pace with the times, and perpetrators too often end up benefiting from a host of legal loopholes.

“A white supremacist who targets and attacks a Black person because of their race is treated the same as a person who punches somebody in a bar fight. That’s not right,” Attorney General Maura Healey told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee last week.

“And if the penalties are the same for a simple battery and a hate crime battery, which they are under current law, here’s what happens: As a prosecutor, you charge the battery. You don’t charge the hate crime, because you have to prove the additional element of intent, and that’s hard to do,” she added.


Healey, working in collaboration with lawmakers including lead sponsors Representative Tram Nguyen and Senator Adam Hinds, is supporting legislation to update the state’s law, expand the list of protected classes to include “immigration status, gender, gender expression, and sex,” and impose new data collection requirements.

The newly redrafted bill (not yet in print), which Healey characterized as a “narrower approach” than the original bill filed back in February, updates “only those penalties that we think are really necessary to ensure accountability for perpetrators of hate crimes.” She cited bias-related assault and battery.

It would also increase penalties for repeat offenders with “a history of hate crime convictions and who use a dangerous weapon and cause bodily injury.”

The new bill also incorporates an idea advanced by Senator Cynthia Creem that would apply the hate crimes statute to any incident that damages rented property or, say, a college dorm room — closing yet another loophole in the current law.

“Someone could spray a racial slur on a home that you rented and they would not be guilty of a hate crime,” Creem told the committee because, under the law, the crime didn’t target the owner of the property.

A Black family in Somerville faced just that situation when they awoke to find racist graffiti painted on the fence of their rented home.


Hinds noted that the redrafted law also includes a “restorative justice” option that courts could use to divert those found guilty away from prison and possibly down a better path.

“We think there’s an opportunity for education and dialogue between alleged offenders and those they have harmed,” Hinds told the committee.

Tackling hate — difficult though that may be — merits more than a one-size-fits-all solution.

When the shock of the latest outrage subsides and the headlines fade from view, there must still be justice for the victims — and for their communities, which are also damaged in the process. There must be more than candlelight vigils. Instead, there must be a message sent that violence paired with hatred won’t be tolerated by a civil society.

When lawmakers return to formal sessions next year, they need to send that message — loud and clear — by putting this bill on the governor’s desk.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.