An Alaska Senate bill would elevate crimes motivated by prejudice, bias or hate, set minimum sentences for misdemeanor hate crimes and allow civil lawsuits based on discriminatory harassment.
The Judiciary Committee on Wednesday heard Senate Bill 246, sponsored by Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, D-Rampart, and Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage. The panel will hear the bill again, possibly with amendments, said chairman Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, after taking testimony.
"What sets hate crimes apart from other acts of violence is the psychological damage they leave behind," Lincoln told the committee.
Hate crimes intimidate others of the same group as the victim, leaving them feeling vulnerable and unprotected by the law and suspicious of those in power, said Robert Jacobs, the Anti-Defamation League's Pacific Northwest director, who testified by phone from Seattle.
Potential victims of random crime can avoid bad neighborhoods, but people shouldn't have to escape who they are innately, he said.
After a 2001 incident in Anchorage in which Natives were struck with paintballs, said Nelson Angapak Sr., executive vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, "I wonder, is there somebody out there, looking for me, to shoot me?"
Lexi Olsen, a Native student at Juneau-Douglas High School, said she was regularly harassed by non-Native students in her sophomore year. They shoved her, spilling her coffee, which burned her arms, she said. Students on school buses threw things at her until she stopped riding the bus. When she was on crutches for a dislocated knee, students shoved her against lockers, she said.
"I hope you understand that racial discrimination happens to all Natives, not just certain ones," Olsen said.
It's not clear how many crimes are motivated by hate. Anchorage reported 67 crimes motivated by hate or bias between 1998 and 2002, Lincoln said, but only 17 led to arrests. Many such crimes aren't recorded as such, she added.
The bill is modeled after a prototype written by the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization. The bill refers to crimes based on the victim's real or perceived race, sex, color, creed, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation, ancestry or national origin.
Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have some type of hate-crime law, and 31 of them offer civil remedies, Jacobs said. The proposed hate-crime law in Alaska would punish offenders for damage to people or property, but would not punish them for speech, he said.
Committee member Sen. Scott Ogan, R-Palmer, said he once was confronted in a village by a Native man who said he shoots white men.
"It's not always a one-way street," Ogan said.
Ogan sympathized with those who testified about facing prejudice, but said he was concerned the law would create distinctions among different types of people. He said all crimes are hateful.
"It kind of starts down a slippery slope of crimes against a class of people. It creates an unequal class of people," Ogan said.
But Lincoln said the law is for all races, and she pointed out that prosecution requires proof of the crime's motivation.
Committee member Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, a former state prosecutor, said the law would produce a small number of prosecutions because hate crimes aren't that common and the standard of proof is "fairly stringent."
"It's very difficult to prove what's in a person's mind," French said.
State law already allows judges to add to felony sentences if the crime was motivated by hate. The bill adds sexual orientation to the list of characteristics that can be subject to hate crimes for that purpose.
Lincoln, referring to Anchorage youths who were charged with misdemeanors in paintball attacks on Natives in January 2001, said they received slaps on the hand.
Her bill would elevate some misdemeanors to felonies if the offenders were motivated by hate. The bill would not allow judges to suspend imposing a sentence in hate-crime misdemeanors. Instead, it sets minimum jail sentences, such as 60 days for fourth-degree assault that causes injury.
The bill also requires that juveniles who commit bias-related offenses perform at least 100 hours of community service and take a diversity tolerance program or its equivalent.
The state hasn't estimated what the proposed law would cost, but court officials anticipate it would result in more court hearings and more trials.
A similar bill in 2001, requested by Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles and sponsored by Lincoln, didn't come to a vote.
"It's been going very slow," Lincoln said of this year's efforts.
"It's extremely sad to me that there are folks still, even in the makeup of the House and the Senate, that just don't get it," she said. "Some, if you asked if there is racism in the state, will say no."
The bill did receive the support of about 85 citizens at a rally on the Capitol steps Wednesday afternoon. Many were JDHS students who had marched from the school, which has been roiled by much-publicized anti-Native incidents this year.
The students sang "We Shall Overcome" and the Tlingit national anthem, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, chanted, and heard from students, House Minority Leader Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, Lincoln, Davis, and Doloresa Cadiente of the Alaska Native Sisterhood.
Senate Bill 246 "is about accepting one another for who we are," said Angelica Lim, vice president of the Associated Student Body at JDHS. "Every unkind word or act ... tears us apart, not only as a high school but as a community. If we allow this to happen in the high school, what will happen when we are leaders in the community?"
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.