Legislators propose expansion of hate crimes law

Contributing Writer


Legislation intended to extend the definition of hate crimes to include gender, sexual orientation and gender identity was introduced in the Rhode Island House of Representatives by House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Edith Ajello, D-Providence, Jan. 12. Though President Barack Obama signed a hate crimes bill into law to add these designations to the federal hate-crime definition in 2009, Rhode Island has not established a similar statute.

Ajello said she was motivated to introduce the legislation by the stories she heard from members of one of Rhode Island’s LGBTQ groups, Youth Pride. The “pain and fear I saw in the eyes of young people just to be out in public” influenced her, she said.

Without this legislation, there is currently no method of tracking gender identity-related hate crimes in Rhode Island, she said.  

The legislation is “one more step in the right direction,” said Annie Russell, director of the LGBTQ Center at the University of Rhode Island, adding that “hate crimes legislation (is) an important facet” of the ongoing battle for LGBTQ civil rights. She added that the federal law does not do enough to protect against hate crimes based on gender identity expression and that states must now take the initiative. 

URI created a “Bias Response Team” two years ago to monitor campus hate crimes and to make sure the university is responding appropriately. It has since seen a decline in the number of hate crimes on campus, Russell said. The bill has the support of the URI administration, she said, though many on campus are unaware of its existence.

Transgender hate crimes and the current legislation also receive little attention at Brown, said Madeleine Jennewein ’14, representative of GenderAction, a transgender-specific subgroup of the Queer Alliance. Transgender crimes are “very invisible” yet occur at a high rate, she said. 

This lack of awareness accounts for the infrequent prosecution of transgender crimes, Jennewein said. This legislation would be important to “bring greater awareness to trans-issues,” she said. 

Ajello has previously submitted the present bill twice, but former Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65 vetoed the bill on the grounds that “as long as a criminal act was done willfully and knowingly, the perpetrator’s motives are irrelevant,” reported GoLocalProv. Ajello said most opponents of the law are concerned that punishing the intent behind a crime is “Orwellian.”

Rep. Michael Chippendale, R- Foster, Glocester and Coventry, opposed the bill because he thought the law would prosecute “thought crimes,” she said. Chippendale did not respond to The Herald’s request for comment. 

Ajello said the legislation does not increase punishment and does not punish mere thought, but rather provides a method for collecting data to increase awareness that these crimes are occurring and affecting members of the LBGTQ community.  

The legislation has passed the House and is awaiting a vote in the Senate, where it has passed twice before and is likely to pass again, according to Ajello

Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 has voiced strong support for the legislation. 

“In the U.S. Senate, I was proud to co-sponsor and support legislation broadening the definition of a hate crime,” Chafee wrote in an email to The Herald. “In my campaign for governor, I pledged to support expanding state hate crimes legislation to include gender identity and expression. With this in mind, I fully support (the) House bill.” 

Ajello said she is “cautiously optimistic” the legislation will be enacted.