Pittsburgh massacre resets the alarm to improve Pa’s hate-crime law | Editorial
Pennsylvania's hate-crime law is too weak and underutilized to meet our increasingly vitriolic times.
The Justice Department rightly charged Robert Bowers with a hate crime Wednesday in the terrifying slaughter of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue because that's exactly what it was. The department is also right to investigate the shooting deaths of two African Americans outside a Kentucky supermarket as a hate crime, too.
These shocking acts are the latest in a disturbing escalation of violence against blacks, Jews, and gays over the past four years, according to the latest FBI statistics. The agency says that there were 6,100 reported hate crimes in 2016, an increase of 3,000 over 2015.
And as bad as the increase is, it is hardly the whole story. Experts note that hate crimes are woefully underreported, making existing numbers of incidents just the tip of an iceberg. Fewer than 10 percent of the nation's 16,000 law-enforcement agencies even bother to report whether they've had incidents in their jurisdictions. Reporting a hate crime to the FBI is voluntary; that's something that should change, especially given the rising numbers of the kinds of incidents we saw Saturday in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Oct. 24 in Jeffersontown, Ky.
In our struggle to understand how anyone could gun down people in a house of worship or at a supermarket, we also have to figure out how to stop such violence from happening again. It's true that no one can legislate morality, but society does demand behavioral norms to protect itself. That's why murder, rape, theft, arson, assault, and other violent or property crimes are outlawed and punishable.
So, too, are hate crimes — which typically carry harsher penalties.
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania's hate-crime law is weak and underutilized. It doesn't include gender, sexual identity, or the perception of sexual orientation as underlying motivations for violence, even though it can be obvious these crimes are grounded in hatred. And, there is little evidence the law is even applied. Only 20 jurisdictions in the state, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, bother to report hate-crime data to the FBI.
Even though the law is weak, law enforcement should use it. Police should run every act of violence against a member of a frequently-targeted group through the filter of hated. The additional charge can add one year to a criminal sentence for underlying crimes. That is a deterrent and can send the message we don't tolerate intolerance.
No doubt, the law should be stronger. It should have higher penalties. In New Jersey, for example, hate crimes can add 15-30 years on a sentence, depending on the crime. A federal designation can carry up to a life sentence.
Pennsylvania's legislature, however, has historically ignored attempts to modernize its law. The Republican majority routinely sends bills aimed at updating the law to a committee where it dies. But that indifference is not going to discourage Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Philadelphia), who says he plans to reintroduce a stronger hate-crime bill in January when the new session opens.
In our grief over Pittsburgh, we should reexamine Pennsylvania's law to meet our increasingly dangerous times and our shared goal to make Pennsylvania safer for everyone.