PRESS RELEASE
From the Office of State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
May 2, 2001
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-8393

James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act Clears Senate Committee

(AUSTIN)//The Senate Criminal Justice Committee, by a vote of 5-1, approved HB 587, the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act. The legislation is now eligible for consideration by the full Senate.

"Today's vote brings us one step closer to our final destination -- signing the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act into law," said Senator Ellis. "We have another great challenge ahead of us, but I am confident we will reach our goal."

The James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act would clarify and strenghten Texas' current hate crimes statute, which has been criticized by legal experts as too vague, overbroad, and unable to withstand constitutional challenge because of a lack of specificity in defining a hate crime. The legislation closely tracks language approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark 1993 Wisconsin v. Mitchell case. That case defines a hate crime as one that has been proven in court to have been motivated by "the race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry" of the victim. Currently, 42 states have hate crimes laws, including 21 that include sexual orientation in their definition. Legislation including nearly identical language has twice passed the House and has passed the Senate in 1993 and 1995.

The James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act will raise the penalty for a crime by one level if a jury has concluded during trial that the crime was motivated by hate. For instance, under current law, someone convicted of spray painting a swastika on a synagogue, a Class A misdemeanor, would be eligible for a maximum punishment of 1 year in jail and a $4000 fine. If convicted under the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, the maximum punishment would be enhanced to that of a state jail felony, a $10,000 fine and 10 year sentence.

"All crimes are not hate crimes, and all crimes are not equal," said Ellis. "What is worse, knocking over a mailbox or burning a cross on a the lawn of an African American family? Spray painting 'Go Longhorns' on a school wall, or a swastika on a synagogue? Hate crimes are acts of terrorism that target an entire community and we have the obligation to raise the penalty for those crimes, and send the signal that Texas will not tolerate crimes of hate, large or small."

The James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act will provide aid to counties with populations under 125,000 to pay for prosecution costs in hate murders; clarify the definition of a hate crime to conform Texas law with language upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Wisconsin v. Mitchell decision; assign a prosecutor in the Attorney General's Office as a hate crimes director.

"Three years ago, Jasper, Texas was the site of the worst hate crime of the post-civil rights era," said Ellis. "The James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act will send a clear signal that Texas will not tolerate those who commit crimes of hatred, and possibly prevent the type of violence we saw in Jasper."

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