HARRISBURG — Party-line voting moved a package of hate crimes bills out of the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and toward a floor vote.
The package consists of four bills focused on expanding protections when people are targeted for crimes because of their sexual orientation, for example, or because of a disability — protections akin to those established for crimes based on race, religion and ethnicity.
Each advanced on a 12-9 voting pattern with Democratic members voting in favor and Republicans opposed.
The votes came three weeks after the House narrowly advanced The Fairness Act, or House Bill 300, almost exclusively along party lines. That bill would extend protections under Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Act against discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. It moved to the Senate for further consideration.
Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, and Rep. Napoleon Nelson, D-Montgomery, announced the package on April 24, timing the reveal with the start of jury selection for the federal trial of Robert Bowers. Bowers is accused of slaughtering 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. The synagogue is located in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, which falls in Frankel’s legislative district.
“I want to be clear that this package creates no new crimes and invokes no new criminal penalties, none,” Frankel said during Wednesday’s committee meeting. “This legislation simply aligns the commonwealth’s protection with those groups most often targeted by hate crimes.”
Revising existing statutes
House Bill 1024, introduced by Frankel and Nelson, would revise existing statutes on the criminal offense of assault by replacing the term “ethnic intimidation” with “hate-based intimidation” to include the disabled and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Crimes of intimidation involve personal injury, criminal mischief and criminal trespass.
The bill would also mandate training every other year for municipal police and state troopers. The training would be centered on identifying, addressing, reporting and recording instances of hate-based intimidation.
There is a section to reinforce that the law wouldn’t supersede constitutionally protected religious speech and conduct as well as the federal Religious Freedom Protection Act.
Rep. Tim Bonner, R-Mercer/Butler, called hate-based crimes some of the most disturbing he prosecuted in his 18 years as an assistant district attorney in Mercer County, and he expressed optimism that the bills could be put “into position for strong bipartisan support.”
However, Bonner raised concern that the bill doesn’t expressly define a disability. And, he asked about potentially amending the proposals so they’re not overly broad so as to seek application to any law in the U.S., citing bill language.
“The concern that I have about all hate-based legislation is that it gets into the state of mind of the individual,” said Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, who decried racism and discrimination as deplorable but said it’s difficult to differentiate between legitimate disagreements and discrimination.
Frankel acknowledged the difficulty of getting into another person’s mind, so to speak. However, he said the upcoming prosecution of the Tree of Life shooter will demonstrate how evidence, like online postings of hateful messages, can prove intent to commit a crime based on specific hatred.
Schemel noted that the proposal has no evidentiary standards, though.
Rep. Christopher Rabb, D-Philadelphia, also spoke to the “slippery slope” of attempting to decode one’s thoughts. But, he said the attempt to address hate crimes is legitimate because of ongoing crimes against groups of citizens for their differences.
Structural violence has allowed individuals to do awful things, he said. Rabb, a Black man, said he’s been targeted with threats for his race throughout his tenure in the General Assembly, “sometimes fueled by my colleagues in this body through social media where I’ve had to seek protection for my children.”
“And, I am the embodiment of structuralized violence where I descend from multiple rapists,” Rabb said. “The reason I look the way that I do is because of structural violence and institutional rape.”
House Bill 1025, sponsored by Nelson, would add the definition of hate-based intimidation to the Public School Code. It aims to establish standards for reporting allegations, mandates training for public school employees, establishes protections for those reporting a violation at a college and university, and sets a requirement for online reporting by postsecondary institutions.
Rep. David Rowe, R-Union/Snyder/Mifflin/Juniata, through questioning, noted there is no statutory definition of “emotional damage” as implied as an injury in some of the bills. He said he was targeted in his home district for his position on emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic, having once had police called to a public place as he was harassed by others. He said he understood the package’s intent but that there must be space in the public to have difficult conversations on sensitive topics in order to learn about one another and avoid groupthink.
House Bill 1026, introduced by Frankel, seeks to mandate education and community service, eight hours each, as a condition of probation or parole for those convicted of a hate crime. The learning and service are centered on the classes targeted in the crime. Victims would be afforded the ability to submit impact statements at sentencing hearings to describe the crime’s effect on their community and themselves.
House Bill 1027, another by Frankel, would also update existing statutes for the defined term of “hate-based intimidation.” It would also broaden the ability of the potentially newly protected classes to seek injunctive relief and civil penalties including punitive damages.