Maryland is poised to be the first state in the nation to enact hate crime legislation protecting homeless people and their property, pending passage of legislation in the Maryland House of Delegates and signing by Gov. Martin O’Malley.
On March 6, Maryland’s senate overwhelmingly passed a bill that expands protected classes of people to include homeless people among groups based on race, color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and nation of origin.
Sen. Alex Mooney, a Republican, introduced the bill after seeing footage of a homeless person in Florida being beaten by teenagers with baseball bats.
“We did some research and saw that it was a problem in more states,” says Mooney legislative aide Michael Hough. “There were even a couple cases in Maryland and Baltimore a few years ago.”
Reported incidents of attacks against homeless men and women across the country have reached their highest level in years, according to a recent report by the National Coalition for the Homeless. The report details 142 violent crimes nationwide against homeless individuals in the past year; that is the highest number of incidents since NCH’s annual study began in 1999 and represents a 65 percent increase from last year.
“It is NCH’s position that many of these acts should be considered hate crimes,” says Michael Stoops, the executive director of NCH. “Crimes against homeless people are motivated by the same intolerance as hate crimes against people of a certain religious, racial, or ethnic background.”
Recent violence against homeless people in Maryland included three fatal beatings in 2001 of homeless men in Baltimore, according to NCH. A group of teenagers was charged in the string of homicides. In 2002, two Maryland police officers were indicted for beating and unleashing a dog on a homeless man. In 2004, a homeless man was fatally beaten after he made negative comments about another man’s girlfriend. In 2006, a police officer in Takoma Park was indicted for assaulting a homeless man detained for questioning.
Adam Schneider with Health Care for the Homeless Inc. in Baltimore says that he knows firsthand that there are many unreported violent attacks on homeless people, many of which could be motivated by hate.
“Life on the streets is inherently violent,” Schneider says, “and individuals who live on the streets are particularly vulnerable to attack.”
Schneider added that like NCH, Health Care for the Homeless is in favor of this legislation and has been advocating for it.
If the legislation is enacted, those found guilty of a hate crime-based attack on a homeless person, like those convicted of other violent hate crime offenses, would be subject to imprisonment for up to 10 years and/or a fine of up to $10,000. If a violation results in the death of a victim, the violator is subject to imprisonment for up to 20 years and/or a fine of up to $20,000.
Other states currently considering similar hate crime bills include Massachusetts, Florida, California, and Nevada, says Michael Stoops.
According to the FBI’s most recent report on hate-crime statistics in 2005, law enforcement agencies reported that there were 8,804 victims of hate crimes nationwide that year. An analysis of data for victims of single-bias hate crime incidents showed that 55.7 percent of the victims were targeted because of a bias against a race. The next largest group of those victimized was for a bias against a religious belief, in 16 percent of cases, followed first by a bias against an ethnicity or nation of origin and then by a bias against a sexual orientation. No data are readily available on homeless individuals.
As with all anti-crime law, it is impossible to determine whether hate crime legislation effectively deters attacks, according to Jack Levin, Northeastern University professor and co-author of Hate Crimes Revisited: America’s War on Those Who Are Different (Westview Press, 2002).
“Hate crime laws send a message,” says Levin, “namely, that Americans will not tolerate hate and violence against the vulnerable.”
By JEN PEARL, Street News Service
Laura Thompson Osuri contributed to this article. ©Street News Service: www.street-papers.org
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/04/04/apr-4-2007-entire-issue