Violence against people because of their race, gender identity or another protected status is becoming more prevalent, but because of gaps in state law, there is effectively "no difference" between a battery offense and a hate crime battery, the state's top prosecutor told lawmakers on Tuesday.
Attorney General Maura Healey, who for months has been pressing for an overhaul of the state's hate crime statute, warned that the language as drafted prevents many heinous offenses from being fully punished.
"A white supremacist who targets and attacks a Black person because of their race is treated the same as a person who punches somebody in a bar fight. That's not right," Healey said a Judiciary Committee hearing. "And if the penalties are the same for a simple battery and a hate crime battery, which they are under current law, here's what happens: as a prosecutor, you charge the battery. You don't charge the hate crime, because you have to prove the additional element of intent, and that's hard to do."
Healey joined with lawmakers to support legislation that she said would clarify and strengthen the hate crimes statute, including updated penalties and a redrafted list of protected characteristics that would include immigration status, gender, gender expression and sex.
Rep. Tram Nguyen, the lead sponsor of the House version, told the Judiciary Committee that the state's hate crimes laws "are not only weaker than those in other states, but too poorly drafted to be easily understood."
"When a law is confusing, it's rarely enforced," she said.
The bill was filed in February but is only surfacing now, midway through the two-year session, for its initial public hearing.