Press Release from State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
Friday, May 11, 2001
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-8393

Thompson/Ellis legislation will toughen penalties for hate crimes

(AUSTIN)// Ending nearly a decade of sometimes contentious debate, Texas Governor Rick Perry today signed into law the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, legislation that will toughen penalties for hate crimes.

"This is truly an historic day for the State of Texas," said Ellis. "Today, we have taken another step on the long journey for justice."

"While the debate over this bill has often been contentious, it has also brought out the best of Texas," said Ellis. "Today's decision by Governor Perry shows that, while we can disagree on issues with passion, we can also come together with pride."

On Monday, the Senate approved HB 587, the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, legislation by Representative Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) and Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) that will enhance penalties for crimes proven in court to be motivated by hate. The legislation will provide aid to small counties prosecuting 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, improve education about the damage caused by hate crimes, and assign a prosecutor in the Attorney General's Office as a hate crimes director.

Senator Ellis has led the fight to punish hate crimes in Texas. In 1993, he passed legislation creating the current hate crimes statute, and requiring local and county police departments to report hate crimes statistics to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

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 B misdemeanor, would be eligible for a maximum punishment of 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. If convicted under the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, the maximum punishment would be enhanced to that of a Class A misdemeanor, a $4,000 fine and 1 year sentence.

"I am particularly pleased today for the Byrd family," said Ellis. "Throughout the last three years, they have faced grave tragedy with unparalleled dignity and strength. This law sends the message that the State of Texas has been touched by their loss, and will do more to fight the hatred and prejudice that has forever altered their lives."