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Oregon overhauls hate crime laws for first time in decades

Oregon will substantially overhaul its hate crime laws for the first time since the early 1980s.

Posted: Jul 17, 2019 2:26 PM
Updated: Jul 17, 2019 4:22 PM

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"Our hate crime laws are sorely out of date and were written decades ago," said Zakir Khan, board chair of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.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.


READ: Attorney General praises Senate for passing bill tightening state hate crime laws


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."

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

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Confirmed Cases: 21774

Reported Deaths: 368
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Multnomah501498
Washington316125
Marion297973
Umatilla231230
Clackamas157144
Malheur82213
Deschutes61610
Lane5963
Jackson4862
Yamhill47013
Lincoln4199
Union3952
Jefferson3774
Morrow3773
Polk32612
Linn29611
Klamath2042
Hood River2010
Wasco1943
Benton1716
Douglas1561
Josephine1242
Columbia1010
Coos910
Clatsop890
Crook501
Baker400
Tillamook340
Lake320
Wallowa191
Curry170
Sherman160
Harney100
Gilliam40
Grant40
Wheeler00
Unassigned00

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Orange40527724
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San Diego32975594
Kern24995183
Fresno17846171
San Joaquin13870235
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Santa Clara12962207
Sacramento12274179
Tulare11549198
Stanislaus10264169
Imperial9867244
Contra Costa9787146
Ventura874093
San Francisco769267
Santa Barbara699672
San Mateo6431122
Merced573670
Monterey549437
Marin540481
Kings445356
Solano427441
Sonoma375350
Madera246339
Placer237724
San Luis Obispo227817
Yolo183444
Santa Cruz12876
Butte12388
Napa112911
Sutter9967
San Benito7654
El Dorado7552
Lassen6830
Yuba6664
Mendocino47210
Shasta46910
Glenn4363
Colusa3965
Nevada3571
Tehama3031
Humboldt2864
Lake2402
Amador1853
Mono1581
Tuolumne1552
Calaveras1471
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