SB86: Bill would increase penalties for hate crimes in Utah

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Rick Bowmer
Sen. Daniel W. Thatcher, R-West Valley CIty, sits on the Senate floor at the Utah State Capitol, February 2017. Thatcher is sponsoring a bill during the 2018 legislative session to strengthen the state’s hate crimes law. (Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill sponsored in the 2018 Utah legislative session would increase penalties for hate crimes.

Sen. Daniel W. Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said SB86 aims to encourage harsher sentencing for hate crimes, which include targeting victims based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and gender orientation.

Those in favor of the bill hope it will discourage these crimes from happening in the future.

Thatcher said his biggest motivation for getting this bill passed is suicide prevention and criminal justice reform, which are two areas he has worked on frequently throughout his career.

“This is one of the issues where two of those passions of mine converge,” Thatcher said. “When crimes are committed with the intent to threaten and intimidate and disrupt the peace and security of these communities when people feel less secure in their tribes, then suicide is much more likely an option.”

Thatcher said the bill is especially important to Utah because current state laws are insufficient to prosecute hate crime.

Legislation passed in 2006 classified all hate crimes in Utah as misdemeanors. If SB86 passed, Utah would be able to prosecute hate crimes itself rather than having the federal government step in to do it.

“This is good law. It is responsible criminal justice reform and this will help the suicide prevention,” Thatcher said.

This is not the first time Utah senators have tried to pass legislation to crack down on hate crimes. Former Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, advocated for many such bills during his 16 years in the Utah Legislature. None of the bills were adopted. However, this year may be different for hate crime legislation.

Thatcher has steadily built support for his bill over the past year by uniting various organizations spanning religions, political views and various demographics, including Jewish Action Utah, Mormons Building Bridges, First Baptist Church SLC, Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church and others.

Thatcher said those who oppose the bill say the bill would give special protections to certain groups and not others, rendering the law unconstitutional.

The Utah approach is patterned after Wisconsin’s approach where the law has been upheld as constitutional on all grounds, already with multiple applications, according to Thatcher.

Thatcher said the fears of unconstitutionality and the fears of special protections are unfounded.

Philip Sheldon, president of HE travel in Salt Lake City and a member of the LGBT community, said he supports the bill.

“A hate crime has nothing to do with the specific victim, but … is designed to intimidate an entire group,” Sheldon said. “By allowing harsher punishment for a hate crime, the justice system tells every other member of the targeted group that society values our diversity, and will protect everyone.”

Sheldon said he is concerned with the protection of Muslim, Mormon, Sikh and other religions, in addition to the LGBT community.

“This bill will be a tremendous step for Utah to demonstrate fairness to all citizens. It is not a gay rights issue,” Sheldon said. “It is, instead, a way to strengthen the ties that bind us all as a community,” he said.

Fairness advocacy group Equality Utah offered its support to the bill. Executive Director Troy Williams said the bill will protect “any victim who is targeted because of their faith, race, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity,” qualities all Utahns have.

A recent FBI report showed the highest number of Utah hate crimes in 2016 came in descending order from race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and gender. These are all categories referenced in the bill. Williams referenced the same report.

“The FBI recently reported that hate crimes are on the rise in Utah; however, we do not have a law that will prosecute these crimes,” Williams said. “Over the past two decades, our hate crimes statute has failed to convict a single offender. It is broken and unenforceable. Senator Thatcher’s new legislation provides a desperately needed fix.”

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