The following is testimony as prepared for delivery by Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, Roy Austin, on the subject of hate crimes prevention and enforcement.
Good afternoon, Chairman Durbin, Ranking Member Graham, and members of the Subcommittee. I am honored to come before you to represent the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and discuss one of the Department’s priorities – hate crimes prevention and enforcement.
The topic of this hearing is deeply important to me on a professional and personal level. As a Deputy Assistant Attorney General, I oversee the dedicated career professionals in the Division’s Criminal Section who are charged with prosecuting hate crimes across the country.
But before I rejoined the Department, I served as a line prosecutor in the same section working on bias-motivated assaults, cross burnings and church arsons, and I saw how the devastation caused by a single act of hate can reverberate through families, through communities and places of worship, and throughout the entire nation. I can also tell you that the nation’s hate crime statutes, passed with bipartisan congressional support, are powerful tools for combating hate and violence, so that all of our citizens can live free of fear from being targeted because of the color of their skin, the religion they practice, or who they love.
I thank Senator Leahy, Senator Durbin, and all 63 Senators who supported our most recent hate crimes statute, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 which gave us, for the first time, a federal law that criminalizes violence motivated by sexual orientation, gender identity, gender and disability.
State and local prosecutors continue to prosecute the vast majority of hate crimes with the federal government serving as a backstop. But, the Civil Rights Division and U.S Attorney’s Offices have taken the lead in cases where such federal involvement was in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice, or where the state has requested that the federal government assume jurisdiction.
While we as a nation have made significant progress addressing hate crimes, recent events, like the horrific mass shooting at the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, remind us all too vividly that our work is not done.
This incident has highlighted the question whether to reexamine the categories of religious groups that are listed on the FBI’s hate crimes data collection form, a form that is used to capture the perpetrator’s motivation and not the victim’s background. In the next few weeks, the Civil Rights Division and the Community Relations Service will bring together a broad spectrum of religious organizations, including groups representing Sikh Americans, to elicit their views on what information should be collected. Separately, the FBI’s panel of outside subject matter experts will hear from stakeholders.
Today, I am proud to share with you the Division’s recent accomplishments in preventing, punishing, and deterring violent acts of bigotry and hate.
We have aggressively responded to incidents where people use the hatred and fear spread by terrorists as an excuse to engage in their own acts of violence. All told, since 9/11, in cases targeting Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian individuals, the Department has brought 43 prosecutions against 55 defendants in cases, with 47 convictions to date. Members of these groups are as much a part of the diverse fabric of America as anyone else.
We are prosecuting cases where people are targeted and attacked because of their sexual orientation. Just last month, a defendant in Detroit, Michigan pled guilty in federal court for assaulting a man at a convenience store because he thought the man was gay.
We are prosecuting violent acts of intolerance motivated by race, from the case of a young Native American man with a developmental disability in New Mexico who was branded with a swastika by a hot wire hanger . . . to the cross burnings that still persist as painful symbols of bigotry and hate.
We secured the conviction of defendants in Arkansas who chased a group of Latino men from a gas station with anti-Latino slurs, ramming their truck into the victims’ car until it ran off the road, flipped over, and burst into flames. These victims did nothing to deserve the violence they faced.
We are also tackling the problem of hate crimes using the Internet. A New Jersey man who went by the name “Devilfish” pled guilty in federal court to charges related to sending threats to employees of five Latino civil rights organizations.
Under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder and Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, in Fiscal Year 2011, the Division convicted 42 defendants on hate-crime charges, the largest number in more than a decade. And, as of this month, the Division has charged 13 cases against 37 defendants under the Shepard-Byrd Act.
Because this Act enhances the Division’s ability to assist our law enforcement partners, starting in the five states without hate crimes statutes, the Division has trained thousands of state and local authorities and community members on how to identify, investigate, and prosecute hate crimes in communities across the country.
Our work, in the Department of Justice, is about the families that worship at a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who received a bomb threat from a man in Texas last September, because they are Muslim.
Our work is about a gay man who was kidnapped and assaulted in Kentucky, because he is gay.
Our work is about a black man in Mississippi who was killed by being run over by a truck, because he was black.
Our work is about men and women in California who saw their church and their synagogue seriously damaged, because they are Christian and because they are Jewish.
Our work is about trying to make communities divided by hatred and ignorance whole.
It is sad that violent acts of hate continue to occur in 2012. But, we will continue to vigorously enforce the law so that all individuals enjoy the civil rights guaranteed by our Constitution.
I thank you for inviting me and I look forward to your questions.