We need to strengthen Mass. hate crimes law

Our current statutes are too vague, making prosecutors hesitant to use them

FEBRUARY 23, 2020. On this date, two years ago, three men stalked and murdered Ahmaud Arbery because they didn’t think a Black man belonged in the neighborhood. This date resonates more right now, as those three men have been convicted of federal hate crimes charges.

Why go through a federal trial, when they already have been sentenced to life for murder in Georgia? Because Georgia didn’t have applicable hate crimes laws at the time of the murder. And because it’s important to take a stand against criminal racist behavior. It’s essential to hold perpetrators accountable when their crime not only takes a life, but threatens an entire community’s ability to feel safe. Silence in the face of crimes rooted in hatred only breeds more hate.

When the Arbery case made headlines, here in Massachusetts our own attorney general’s office looked at our hate crime statutes. If such a crime happened in our state today, could the perpetrators be charged with a hate crime? Sadly, the answer is: unlikely. So Attorney General Maura Healey, along with state Sen. Adam Hinds, and myself, filed H.1819, An Act to reform the hate crime statutes, to update our laws and hold attackers accountable for crimes motivated by animus towards groups of people.

Currently, Massachusetts has two statutes that address hate crimes but they are vague, partially overlapping, and do not give clear directives to prosecutors and judges on how to apply the law fairly and correctly. The lack of clarity means prosecutors hesitate to charge a hate crime.

Prosecutors also face a challenge to demonstrate a single motivation for the crime. In some cases, there can be more than one layer to a motivation – a perpetrator could be stealing iPhones specifically from AAPI seniors because these seniors are perceived to be more vulnerable, or a bar fight could escalate to a stabbing because of the perceived sexual orientation of one of the parties. In most of those cases, only the underlying crime is charged, not the bias motivation. This is because the bias motive, especially a mixed motive, is harder to prove. As a result, such crimes go uncharged, and perpetrators – while possibly convicted of a lesser charge – are not held accountable for terrorizing an ethnic group, or a racial or religious community, or people of differing gender identities.

How big a problem are hate crimes in Massachusetts? We don’t actually know, because the data collection thus far has been wildly insufficient. To have data on hate crimes, a hate crime must be charged; if it isn’t charged as such, that crime is not counted as a hate crime. Even if a crime is recognized as bias-motivated, law enforcement is under no requirement to report it to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. Currently, reporting hate crimes numbers is only voluntary.

According to the 2020 hate crimes report, 271 law enforcement agencies submitted reports indicating that they experienced no bias-motivated incidents and 38 agencies did not report anything to EOPSS. This as grass-roots organizations like Stop AAPI Hate have gathered data that reveals a 150 percent increase in crimes against Asians during COVID, with Boston having one of the largest increases.

Because attacks are rarely charged as hate crimes, survivors are less likely to report the attack in the first place. Already victimized, they are understandably unwilling to put themselves out there and risk further exposure to hate, if nothing is going to come of it anyway. This increases the gap of trust between vulnerable communities and the law enforcement that is sworn to protect them.

In order to stop the escalation of hate crimes, in order to hold perpetrators accountable for terrorizing entire communities, the laws must be changed. This is why AG Healey, Sen. Hinds, and I filed the Hate Crimes Reform bill to clarify and simplify the existing hate crime statutes, making them simpler to charge. This bill clarifies that mixed motivation is chargeable; adds a penalty where none exists for battery, the most common form of bias attack; and adds gender and immigration status as protected classes. It makes data collection mandatory, and adds a restorative justice component for perpetrators who are willing to make restitution.

We filed this bill exactly one year ago, in honor of Ahmaud Arbery, and of others who have been targeted based on their race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, age, or disability.

One month later, eight people, including six AAPI women, were murdered in Atlanta.

Four months later, a self-declared white supremacist drove through the streets of Winthrop, apparently targeting a Jewish temple in the area, and murdered two Black people he saw along the way.

For each of these crimes, there was an outcry of outrage, and an outpouring of support for the communities that were attacked. But as time goes on, the outrage dies down and life goes on – except for in those communities, where AAPI folks are afraid to walk the streets, where Black people can’t safely go for a jog; where Jewish people can’t celebrate the Sabbath without fear that their synagogue is next.

We must follow up the outrage with action, and that is where the Hate Crimes Reform bill comes in.  We must pass this legislation before the next crime happens, before the next community is victimized.

Meet the Author
Next month, on March 16, is the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta shootings that killed those six AAPI women and two others. Let’s not mark another anniversary without taking action; let’s not wait for a worse crime to send us all into shock again. Let’s make “never again” mean something. The time for hate crimes reform is now.

Tram Nguyen is a Democratic state representative from Andover.