By SARAH ZIMMERMAN Associated Press
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Gender identity will be added as a protected class as Oregon's hate crime laws see the most significant update since the 1980s under a new measure signed by the governor that also closed a loophole that gave lesser sentences to perpetrators who committed hate crimes alone.
"Our hate crime laws are sorely out of date and were written decades ago," said Zakir Khan, board chair of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "This update is needed to provide justice to so many survivors."
Previously, the law dictated that a hate crime would only be considered a felony if two or more people harm or threaten to harm another person because of "that person's race, color, religion, sexual orientation, disability or national origin." If the perpetrator acts alone, it's only considered a misdemeanor.
The high-profile case of Jeremy Christian is part of the reason lawmakers refocused efforts to update Oregon's hate crime laws, which were written in 1981 and meant to respond to a rise in organized attacks by self-described neo-Nazis that involved multiple perpetrators.
"This creates a peculiar scenario where two defendants spraying racist graffiti on a wall might reasonably expect to be punished more harshly than one individual who physically attacks someone because of the color of their skin," said the state's Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum during a hearing earlier this year.
Christian, who authorities say stabbed three people — killing two of them — that intervened when he began to spew anti-Muslim threats at two teenage girls aboard a light-rail train in Portland in May 2017, faces felony murder charges but was only charged with a misdemeanor hate crime because he acted alone. Christian has pleaded not guilty.
The new law makes it a felony to threaten or assault an individual based on their "membership in a protected class." It also follows the lead of other states by clarifying that gender identity is considered a protected class, a move meant to acknowledge the increase in crimes against transgender individuals.
Hate crimes increased by 40% in Oregon from 2016 to 2017, according to FBI data, while convictions and arrests for those crimes have gone down. But those numbers likely dramatically underestimates the true number of hate crimes because of flaws in the data collection process. Local jurisdictions only have to report crimes that they interpret to be a "bias crime," and a lack of understanding around the nature of hate crimes have led many law enforcement agencies to under-record hateful incidents or report that none have occurred.
The new law, signed by Gov. Kate Brown on Monday, also strengthens definitions around bias crimes, providing more guidance to local jurisdictions and encouraging more accurate data collection. Now, law enforcement must record and respond to all hateful incidents, even if they don't technically rise to the level of a crime.
"Too often people are turned away from law enforcement because there was no criminal activity," said Ricardo Lujan-Valerio, policy associate at the ACLU of Oregon. "People who would have previously been turned away will now be connected to services and community support."
Although the measure sailed through the House and Senate unanimously, some lawmakers bristled at the idea of investing $360,000 a year to shore up Oregon's hate crime reporting system and establish a dedicated hate crime hotline for victims.
Democratic Rep. Janelle Bynum, from Clackamas, said that she supported overhauling the state's hate crime laws but added that too much of the money was dedicated to collecting data. Lawmakers didn't take a vote on a supplemental measure to provide $1.2 million for other anti-hate crime laws.
"I can tell you that these crimes exist, you can ask any black or brown person," said Bynum, who is black. "I get a little squeamish when we have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to prove something that we already know."
Activists acknowledge the criticism, but note that collecting data isn't about proving hate crimes exist. Rather, it helps map out where hateful incidents occur and against which individuals. That data, they say, can allow law enforcement and policy makers to make better informed responses.
Khan adds that public awareness around the nature of hate crimes is minimal outside of minority communities, and that better data can be used as an educational tool.
"I don't think people actually understand the scope of hate crimes and the impact they have on communities of color," said Khan. "If they did, then it wouldn't have taken decades to change the law."