The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Senate Subcommittee Hearing Focuses on Hate Crimes in Wake of Sikh Temple Shooting

September 25, 2012 - Posted by Freddi Goldstein

In response to the recent shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that left six members of the Sikh religious community dead, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing on the enforcement of federal anti-hate crime laws and the need to ensure that all communities are receiving adequate protection.

Committee Chairman Senator Dick Durbin, D. Ill., began the hearing by informing everyone that the Oak Creek shooting was not an isolated incident. He pointed out that according to the most recent FBI report on hate crime statistics for 2010, more than 6,600 hate crimes were reported in the United States, yet that number is not believed to represent the total. Instead, it is believed that these numbers are skewed by underreporting and the actual number could be as high as 271 hate crimes a day.

The hearing examined the impact of the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA), which allows the Department of Justice (DOJ) to prosecute violence motivated by sexual orientation, gender identity, gender and disability and to prosecute hate crimes occurring outside federally protected activities. Roy L. Austin, Jr., deputy assistant attorney general, Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice, testified that since passage of the HCPA there has been an increase in hate crime-related prosecutions, with the Civil Rights Division bringing 13 cases against 37 defendants. Austin also said the HCPA has led DOJ to increase its outreach and training to state and local law enforcement partners. And going forward, Austin said the DOJ Civil Rights Division plans to take another look at the classifications used for identifying hate crime victims to make sure they are inclusive and accurate, an issue that has come into focus given that "Sikh" is not a category.

The concern over inclusion was echoed by Harpreet Singh Saini, whose mother, Paramjit Kuar Saini, was a victim of the Oak Creek shooting. "Senators, I came here today to ask the government to give my mother the dignity of being a statistic," he said at the hearing.

In a press conference following the hearing, Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), offered recommendations for the committee to consider:

It is imperative at this moment that policymakers take strong measures to document, investigate, prosecute, and prevent hate crimes. Specifically, SAALT recommends that (1) a national taskforce to address hate crimes and the threats posted by violent extremists be established with an area of focus on post-September11th discrimination; (2) existing hate crime legislation be rigorously enforced; (3) categorization, reporting, and disaggregation mechanisms be expanded and improved; (4) adequate funding be provided to government agencies addressing this problem; (5) policies ending profiling be put in place; and (6) elected and public officials pledge to refrain from divisive rhetoric and restore civility to political discourse.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and its coalition partners played a lead role in winning passage of the HCPA and continue to advocate for strong enforcement of the law. As Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference, said in a recent op-ed for The Hill:

The Justice Department has done an exemplary job in adapting to and implementing the new law, but there is still more it can do. The department must aggressively use the hate crimes act to prosecute appropriate cases and educate local law enforcement on how they can use it to prevent violence in their communities.

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