Hate crimes amendments pass easily

The Senate on Monday passed four amendments to the Defense Department authorization bill that limit the extension of federal hate crimes laws.

One amendment requires that hate crimes be identified and prosecuted based on “neutral and objective criteria.”

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Another boosts penalties for attacks on U.S. military service members and their families, while a third authorizes the death penalty for certain crimes that result in death.

All three amendments were backed by Republicans, most of whom voted against the extension of hate crime protections last week.

The chamber also passed one Democratic amendment, a compromise proposal by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), that would limit hate crime prosecutions until a state’s attorney general has established standards for applying the death penalty.

Three of the four amendments were unanimously passed; the measure regarding attacks against U.S. military service members passed by a vote of 92-0.

None of the changes significantly affect the chamber’s action last week in passing by voice vote an amendment by Leahy that expands the federal definition of hate crimes to include crimes targeting victims because of their sexual orientation, gender or disabilities.

Republicans continued to grumble about that vote on Monday, with Judiciary Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a former federal prosecutor, giving a lengthy, 50-minute floor speech denouncing the idea of enhancing hate crimes prosecutions.

Sessions said hate crimes appear to be decreasing, that the amendments were improperly rushed into the Department of Defense authorization package with little scrutiny and that they would improperly make hate crimes a federal violation, removing authority from state and local prosecutors.

“We need to be careful that statutes that become permanent parts of our criminal code are supported by evidence and principle,” Sessions said. “I don’t think that our focus here is to deal with symbolic legislation that’s broad and could expand federal criminal jurisdiction beyond its historic role and where the facts do not support the need.”

But Democrats such as Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), also a former prosecutor, said the country’s judicial system doesn’t adequately protect those citizens who may be subject to particularly vicious crimes based on their ethnicity or sexual identity.

“I don’t think the criminal code as I judge it, completely covers all kinds of crimes,” Kerry said. “It doesn’t go to the specific motive and the specific fact of a Matthew Shepard crime or others like that that emanate from various phobias and fears. It helps to serve as a deterrant and it helps to identify a certain kind of value system.”