Here's what I find fascinating.

The U.S. imprisons more people than any other developed nation. The majority of Americans support the death penalty. We're willing to put minors on trial as adults and execute mentally ill offenders. So why, given our eye-for-an-eye system of punishment, wouldn't Congress pass legislation that would give law enforcement officials another tool to get the bad guys off the streets and into prisons?

A tool such as this could have made it easier to prosecute those who beat Luis Ramirez to death in Pennsylvania; or the man who bludgeoned teenager Angie Zapata to death with a fire extinguisher in Colorado; or the pair who robbed, tortured and left to die – tied to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming – a young man named Matthew Shepard.

The men who murdered Luis Ramirez also yelled racial epithets at him. Angie Zapata was transgender. Matthew Shepard was gay. And the tool that would offer assistance from the federal government to local and state authorities is the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act now being considered in the U.S. Congress.

The legislation, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, would assist federal officials in their prosecution of hate crimes that target victims because of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity or disability. The attorneys general in 26 states support the legislation (according to Attorney General Lori Swanson's office, Minnesota's attorney general has not signed onto support the legislation). More than 300 organizations, including the National Sheriffs Association, the Episcopal Church and the YWCA, also support the act. Gallup and Hart Research polls from 2007, during another time when hate crimes legislation was considered, showed that the majority of Americans favored the strengthening of these laws.

Yet some conservative religious groups, such as the Liberty Council and Traditional Values Coalition, have labeled the act as "dangerous legislation" that will threaten freedom of speech and freedom of religion – even though the legislation is clear that to be prosecuted under this law the hate crime must involve acts of violence. They go further in their claims stating that the act, if passed, will punish people for what they think.

That isn't true. Criminals will be punished for committing acts of violence and the Justice Department will have more authority to do their jobs. Isn't this common ground that all of us – no matter our political persuasion and religious beliefs – can share?

The U.S. House of Representatives could vote on the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act by the end of April. A similar version of the legislation is expected to be introduced in the U.S. Senate soon.

Perhaps this will be the year when law enforcement in this country will be strengthened, and the perpetrators of hate-based violence will be held accountable, and punished, for the totality of their crimes.

Older Post

New HIV/AIDS Cases Increase in Minnesota

Newer Post

HIV/AIDS Not Yet a Manageable Disease