While it is short, House Bill 7111 in Rhode Island has the potential to be an important step forward in hate-crime legislation. In essence, the bill, which passed through the House on Feb. 8, adds gender identity and expression to the list of hate-crime markers. The bill is being put forward with the intention of increasing hate-crime monitoring. In the words of Jaye Watts of Youth Pride Inc., one of the bill’s advocates, this entails “recognizing that trans people are a group that needs protection, and has been victimized for who they are. It will provide training for police on how to recognize hate crimes against trans people.” This would allow for statistics to be kept on biased crimes committed against gender variant people, and may clear a path for future legislation.
The bill would also provide specific training for police in recognizing a hate crime of this nature in hopes of being able to prevent further crimes against transgender and gender non-conforming people. This is something that Jodi Glass of Hate Crimes R.I. has been working toward, though she wasn’t available for comment.
The bill still needs to pass through the state Senate before it reaches the governor’s desk, and it has made it through both the House and Senate in previous years only to be vetoed by former Governor Donald Carcieri. With the bill already through the House so early in the legislative session, those working on the bill are quite hopeful that it will pass this year.
One important thing to note is that the bill would not increase penalties for hate crimes. As Edie H. Ajello, one of the bill’s sponsors states: “I’ve been very clear all along, that I don’t support the idea of increased penalties. My point is knowing if it’s happening, where it’s happening, and when it’s happening so that we can stop it effectively. I don’t think enhanced penalties stop anything. I don’t think the death penalty stops murder.” Ajello stressed the point that this bill is striving toward a more understanding community. She said she had been approached years ago by Jaye Watts and Jodi Glass, and has “been very moved by the people that I’ve met and the stories that I’ve heard. I’ve learned a lot, and this legislation is toward other people learning.”
Karen Loewy, a senior staff attorney for GLAD, explained that the bill is “a commitment to nondiscrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression, which has been part of Rhode Island law since 2001 (and) a recognition that bias-motivated crimes require a different kind of attention.” He added that those cases “are more than just heinous crimes experienced by an individual,” and that they are “destructive to society as a whole because they create an environment of fear for an entire segment of the population.”
Indeed, there are some, including the House members who were in opposition to the bill, whose statements in dissent were still biased and did not necessarily reflect those commitments. When asked what people could do to support the bill and see that it passes this year, Watts replied, “We need it to be heard in the Senate. People need to contact their senators, or if they know people on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and bring it up for a hearing.” He remained hopeful that it would pass in the Senate and that Governor Lincoln Chafee would sign it into law.