Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Hate Crimes bill may pass


Utah legislators may finally pass hate crime legislation this year, thanks to a language overhaul and a statement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abhors hatred, intolerance and abuse of any individual or group," said the brief statement from the church released to The Associated Press. "As it has stated consistently over the last three years, the church does not oppose hate crimes legislation, including (House Bill) 90 as drafted."

Bill sponsor Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said he hopes the last nine months of work on this bill, coupled with the statement from the church, will finally garner enough support to pass it.

"The LDS church is an advocate in terms of promoting respect and understanding of our diverse population," Litvack said.

House Bill 90 differs from the previous versions of the bill that failed to pass because it does not act as an 'enhancement' of sentencing. In the past, the bill would have enhanced, or bumped up, second-degree crimes to the first-degree level if crimes were committed because of bias or prejudice based on categorized groups, including race, religion, disability or sexuality.

Instead, Litvack has dropped the categories and provided a way for the ruling judge, working together with the Board of Pardon and Parole, to decide if there is an "aggravating factor" in the crime. It must be based on the victim's perceived or actual membership in a particular group.

If the board and the judge agree that the defendant's acts qualify as a hate crime, they can take that into consideration for sentencing and adjust the term of incarceration appropriate to the crime and motive.

In the last six years Litvack has attempted to pass the bill, the inclusion of "sexual orientation" among the classifications always faced opposition. Litvack said this bill, without the categories, will probably be more palatable to legislators.

Currently, Utah does not have any hate crime statutes, but has a "penalty for hate crimes" law that requires prosecutors to prove a person's civil rights have been violated. Prosecutors and law enforcement officials have rarely used the law because of its high burden of proof.

Utah had 81 total offenses described as hate crimes in 2004, including 27 counts of aggravated assault and 24 counts of intimidation, according to statistics from the FBI.

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