Closing a hate-crime loophole

Statute should not just apply to defacing victims' property

IMAGINE WAKING UP in the morning and seeing an image of hate painted on the front door of the apartment you’ve rented for years. This image is meant to target you and your family. Or imagine that an anti-Semitic group learns that a Jewish family lives nearby. One night the ringleader of the group goes to the home and paints a large swastika on a neighbor’s fence across the street. The following morning, as the parents open the front door and usher their children off to school, they are horrified to discover the image right in front of them. Suddenly—even in their own home—they are overwhelmed with anxiety, terrified for their children’s safety. Over the past year, we have seen more and more of these incidents occurring in our schools, appearing in our neighborhoods and our communities.

You might expect, and certainly those parents would expect, that the perpetrators of these attacks would be charged with a hate crime. Unfortunately, in Massachusetts, you’d be wrong. Why? Because the door and the fence don’t belong to the families that were targeted.

Right now, when a person damages or defaces property in order to intimidate a victim based on the victim’s race, religion, sexual orientation, or other protected status, that person can only be prosecuted for a hate crime if the property belongs to the victim. This means that victims who rent apartments, live in our college dorms, or are targeted at work are not protected by our current laws. When a perpetrator evades accountability through this loophole, victims feel vulnerable and exposed, and the perpetrator feels emboldened.

Although a perpetrator may be charged with destruction of property, this does not reflect what actually happened and, even if restitution is ordered, the owner is not obligated to remove the damage.

That’s why we recently filed legislation to close this loophole and ensure that the hate crime statute protects all Massachusetts residents. Under our bill, damaging property to intimidate victims based on their protected status is a hate crime, regardless of whether the victims own the property that was damaged. The bill also requires property owners to use any restitution they receive to repair the property damage, ensuring that victims are not continually re-traumatized by an image of hate. It’s frightening enough to find a bigoted message scrawled on your apartment building. Nobody should have to face such a message day after day after day.

Incidents of hate have been on the rise in recent years in the Commonwealth. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, the number of anti-Asian hate crimes in Boston more than doubled between 2019 and 2020. At the same time, the pandemic has laid bare the inequities—racial and otherwise—that exist in housing, health care, education, and the justice system.

We know that closing the loophole in the hate crime statute won’t suddenly bring an end to white supremacy, anti-Semitism, or other forms of hatred. We know that it won’t remedy all the inequities that exist throughout our social, political, and economic systems. We also know that perpetrators of hateful acts are avoiding accountability, that victims aren’t receiving the protection of the law and that our bill will address those problems immediately.

Part of addressing these incidents involves naming them as hate crimes and making clear that hate and bigotry have no place in our communities. Our bill is a solution that the Legislature should prioritize.

Cynthia Creem is a state senator from Newton. Marian Ryan is the Middlesex County district attorney. Christine Barber is a state representative from Somerville. 

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Christine P. Barber

State Representative, Somerville