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Why Do California Governors Keep Vetoing Homeless Hate Crime Bills?

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Civil Rights, Hate Crimes

You would think that in a progressive state like California there wouldn’t be three different Governors (two Republicans and one Democrat) who have vetoed homeless hate crimes legislation.  But such is the case.  Disproving that the third try is a charm, on August 5, 2011 Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed AB 312.

Introduced by Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), AB 312 would have granted homeless people the right to invoke hate crimes protection when suing an assailant in civil court.   Current categories include:  race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, marital status, political opinion and position in a labor dispute.

It was supported by state trial lawyers, veterans’ organizations, county sheriffs and the state’s rank and file police officers.

In an interview with EverythingLongBeach.com, Assemblywoman Lowenthal said, “Homeless people have enough problems without becoming the targets of violence.  This bill is the state’s way of saying those kinds of attacks are especially reprehensible.”

In his veto message, Gov. Brown said, “This bill would expand the provisions of the Ralph Civil Rights Act to include homelessness or the perception that one is homeless, thereby creating new private and enforcement remedies.  It is undeniable that homeless people are vulnerable to victimization, but California already has very strong civil and criminal laws that provide sufficient protection.”

But according to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino, “California for years has consistently ranked first or second in bias homicides against the homeless. Moreover, they are often attacked serially with increasing severity. Yet, current legislation completely excludes the homeless as a group from even the basic civil remedies extended to many other groups to stave off these horrible attacks. For anyone to say that the status quo is acceptable strains credulity.”

He should redirect his letter to the family of Kelly Thomas, 37, a schizophrenic homeless man in Fullerton, who died after a July 5th, 2011 interaction with police.  The brutal beating of Thomas has sparked an international outcry along with rallies, officer’s suspensions, calls for the resignation of the police chief, and pending investigations by local and federal authorities.

Last year Brown’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill -AB 2706- also introduced  by Assemblywoman Lowenthal.

In his veto letter dated September 29, 2010 to Members of the California Assembly, Gov. Schwarzenegger wrote:  “While this bill is well-intentioned, it is unclear whether the homeless are targeted for violence because they are homeless, or because they possess a characteristic already protected by California’s hate crime statute, such as mental or physical disability.   Furthermore, poverty, unlike race, gender, national origin and disability, is not a suspect classification.  Because of the incongruence between the recognized classifications listed in the Civil Code section 51.7 and homelessness, this bill could result in legal challenges and increased court costs.”

The former Governor must have forgotten the October 9, 2009 incident in which John Robert McGraham, 55, a homeless man, was drenched in gasoline and set on fire on the side of the road in Los Angeles.  He died.  According to a police officer, the perpetrator, John Martin, had a “straight-up personal dislike and little bit of crazy” toward homeless people.

In both legislative sessions the bills passed overwhelmingly, but along partisan lines.  Democrats generally in favor; Republicans opposed.

Other homeless hate crimes legislation has been stalled, getting tied up into California’s prison overcrowding issue.  In 1994, then Republican Governor Pete Wilson vetoed an even stronger bill that would have simply added homelessness to the state’s existing hate crimes law.

However, there is clearly a need for anti-hate legislation in California.  Since 1999, the National Coalition for the Homeless has issued an annual report on hate crimes and violence against the homeless population.

Between 1999 to 2009, there were a total of 213 hate crimes/violent incidents against the homeless occurring in 48 California cities.   Forty-eight resulted in death.  California had the most incidents of any state during this eleven year period.  Florida came in second with 177 attacks.

Preliminary numbers from NCH’s annual (2010) report on hate crimes/violence against the homeless population has California taking second place only to Florida.   But California still ranks number one for the twelve year period from 1999 to 2010.

But even with three strikes against homeless hate crimes bills, we’re not out yet. Looking forward, the fight in California is far from over. Lowenthal hopes that as states around the country pass similar laws, such as Florida, people will see more the importance of hate crimes legislation that protects people experiencing homelessness. She also expresses her continued resolve, stating, “This legislation has now been vetoed by two successive governors. That is disappointing and frustrating, but I’ve been working on homelessness issues for a long time and making progress is never easy.”

By Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing, National Coalition for the Homeless.

Legislating Hate

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Awareness, Civil Rights, Hate Crimes, Violence Against the Homeless

Hate exists in American society.  Sadly, some individuals act upon hateful urges and cause harm to innocent human beings; harm ranging from minor assault to brutal death.  In an effort to curb hateful violence, Congress and many State governments have enacted statutes that increase punishment for those acts targeted at individuals because of such individual’s status.  The intent of such laws, and the punishments attached, are to send a message to society that our criminal justice system does not tolerate hate.

Unfortunately, the federal government and most States do not categorize homelessness as a protected status from hate.  This means that in most places in America a “homeless hater,” unprovoked, could attack a homeless person sleeping on a bench, and when being tried for the crime, the hater would be punished for the action, but not for the motive of action.  Not punishing a person’s reason for acting sends the message that the act is wrong, but the motive behind the act is acceptable.

On August 9, 1999, in Seattle, Washington, three young men beat and stabbed David Ballenger, 46, to death.  David had no valuable possessions to steal.  David was not involved in drugs, or the associated violence. And David did not verbally or physically entice his attackers. David was simply murdered because he was homeless. In fact, a Seattle newspaper quoted one of the perpetrators boasting that there was “one less bum on the face of the earth.”

The attack began as a verbal barrage, the young men criticizing David for not being able to make a living.  When David walked away, his attackers followed and began beating him.  Resisting, David escaped, but the young men found him, elevated the violence, and stabbed the helpless David Ballenger to death.  This senseless murder is not the only instance of inhumanity toward the homeless in Washington.  In fact, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, between 1999 and 2009 there were 21 reported incidents of violence directed at homeless individuals, 12 of which resulting in death.

Over a decade after David Ballenger’s brutal murder, on January 10, 2011, Washington State Senator Scott White (D-Seattle) introduced legislation in response to the violence toward the homeless.  White’s legislation seeks to include offenses that were intentionally committed because the defendant perceived the victim to be homeless to the criteria for aggravating circumstances under which an exceptional sentence above the standard range may be imposed.  On March 2, 2011 the Senate passed White’s bill with a vote of 49 – 0. The bill was then sent to the House, and the following month the legislation was passed 92 – 1 (Republican Jason Overstreet was the sole dissenter; Republican members Terry Nealey, Kevin Parker, Jay Rodne, and Charles Ross, abstained from the vote) Finally on April 15, 2011, almost 12 years after the brutal murder of David Ballenger, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed White’s bill into law, making offenses committed because a victim was homeless an aggravating circumstance.

But what does this really mean once we climb past the legal jargon?

Practically, the passage of Washington S.B. 5011 (White’s bill) means that if an offense against a person was intentionally committed because that person was perceived to be homeless (the aggravating circumstance), courts will have the option to impose tougher penalties (the exceptional sentence).  However, before a Judge can make a decision regarding the exceptional sentence, the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstance exists.  S.B. 5011 did not create the concept of increased punishment for certain acts.  Rather, it added homelessness to an already lengthy list of other aggravating circumstances existing in Washington State criminal law.  This statute does not create homelessness as a protected category from hate, but it is a step in the right direction.

by Shane M. Poole

California Bill Would Help Protect Homeless People from Hate Crimes

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Civil Rights, Hate Crimes, Policy Advocacy

The National Coalition for the Homeless firmly believes in protecting homeless people against hate crimes committed by housed persons simply because of the victim’s real or perceived homelessness. Through legislation, the state of California has been working to pass important legislation in order to advance this effort. Assembly Bill 312, introduced by State Representative Bonnie Lowenthal (D-54), is being considered by the State Legislature, and just two days ago it passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would specify that crimes against the homeless rendered because of the person’s real or perceived homeless status would be considered a crime discriminatory in nature so victims would have the ability to sue in civil court for increased reparations. In short, the bill would add homelessness as a characteristic to the Ralph Civil Rights Act, which now protects from hate crimes those targeted for factors such as race, sexual orientation, and political affiliation, but not housing situation.

History

AB 2706, introduced last year by Bonnie Lowenthal, was a very similar law, which last year the California Assembly and Senate passed, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it. He stated, “Poverty unlike race, gender, national origin and disability, is not a suspect classification” (see Senate Judiciary Committee bill analysis below). However, under California law, political affiliation was already protected on the same level as race, religion… in the Ralph Civil Rights Act. Political affiliation, like homelessness, tends not to be an inherent characteristic like race or religion, so homelessness should be a protected status as well.

One of the reasons the homeless should have further protection is because of the demonstrated necessity to it. Prior to AB 2706, California in 2001 passed SR 18 which required an examination of hate crimes against the homeless. The results of it, along with our report of “Hate Crimes Against the Homeless,” pointed to many ruthless hate crimes against the homeless. Because of this, along with Democratic Governor Brown in power, it seems more hopeful for the bill to be ratified this year.

Process

In order for the bill to go into effect, it must pass through all of the various levels in the California State Assembly and Senate. The bill has already passed through the Assembly, and two days ago the bill passed, by a 3-2 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee referred the bill back to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it now awaits passage. If this happens, the bill must then pass the Senate floor and Assembly floor in order to go to Governor Brown. Last year, AB 2706 passed the Senate with a 21-13 vote and a 51-26 vote in the Assembly.

Effect

The bill, if passed, would not only help to increase reparations for homeless people who are attacked, but it would also serve as a deterrent to those housed individuals committing the crimes. Though some debate exists over whether violence against the homeless should be put on the same plane as violence against homosexuals or people of a certain race, we believe that crimes against the homeless, committed because they are homeless, deserve to be treated more seriously than crimes without aggravating circumstances.

Take Action

Read the bill and follow its status.

Read the Senate Judiciary Committee bill analysis from June 7, 2011.

Contact members of the Senate Appropriations Committee about the bill.

Laura Epstein, Staff

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