AG Rosenblum Asks Oregon Legislature to Strengthen Hate Crime Laws

March 12, 2019
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Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum today testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Senate Bill 577, a bill created by AG Rosenblum’s Hate Crime Prevention Task Force. The legislation proposes a targeted investment in a model of service that gives assistance to individuals and communities impacted by hate, regardless of whether the incident is ultimately prosecutable. This would place Oregon among a very few states that address “bias incidents”.

“While the number [of hate crimes] is frightening, the truth is we don’t know as much as we should be able to about hate and bias crimes. The only thing we do know is that they’re consistently underreported,” testified AG Rosenblum. “The reasons for their underreporting are complex. I hear repeatedly from community members that they feel like “nothing will happen anyhow,” so there’s no point in making the call to report.  And because that call isn’t made, that hate incident basically disappears from the record.  It isn’t tracked, it isn’t investigated, and no resources are made available for the community members impacted by the hate or bias.  This leaves us with what are often terrifying anecdotes of bigotry, but no systemic sense of where hate is springing up in Oregon, or how best to fight it.”

The proposed legislation would require law enforcement to refer all complaints of hate-motivated conduct that they do not investigate to the Civil Rights Unit of the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ), and require the Criminal Justice Commission to add hate crimes to their portfolio of data that they currently collect and make publicly available. DOJ’s Civil Rights Unit would work with nonprofit organizations and other stakeholders to develop intake standards and best practices around addressing hate and bias crimes. The bill would also ask prosecutors to track hate and bias crimes within their caseloads for the first time.

SB 577 would also modernize Oregon’s hate crimes laws. When Oregon originally introduced hate crimes into the criminal code in the early 1980’s, the law addressed an uptick in organized hate activity. The current statute does not take into consideration the harm being inflicted on a person as much as the number of people involved in the activity. SB 577 would correct this, so that any person who engages in, or threatens, actual violence against a person because of their protected class is punished more harshly than minor property damage or non-violent physical harassment. The bill would also rename the crime of intimidation as a bias crime, and clarify that gender identity is a protected class under Oregon law.

In January, the task force held three consecutive listening sessions in Portland, Eugene, and Medford. Each session attracted dozens of community members who shared their stories of hate and bias. Over three nights, the task force listened to almost eight hours of testimony in community centers that were often standing room only.

“At each listening session, we were joined by local leaders, law enforcement, and elected officials who came to listen to community members tell stories that were frequently devastating.  The stories we heard in Portland, Eugene and Medford about how local residents were impacted by hate- motivated conduct in these communities informed the recommendations in this bill today before the Oregon Senate,” said AG Rosenblum.

The Attorney General’s Hate Crime Prevention Task Force, chaired by Oregon DOJ’s Legislative Director, Aaron Knott, has been meeting monthly since May. Its members represent policymakers, advocacy groups, religious organizations, law enforcement and others. The full list of task force members is here.

The Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) is led by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, and serves as the state’s law firm. The Oregon DOJ advocates for and protects all Oregonians, especially the most vulnerable, such as children and seniors.