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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is calling on senators to expand federal statutes against hate crimes. Those laws already provide for prosecution and increased penalties for violent crimes that are motivated by race or religion. The new legislation is 10 years in the making. It would add protections for gays, women and people with disabilities. NPR's Audie Cornish reports.
AUDIE CORNISH: More than a decade ago, then-Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder testified in support of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The bill still carries the name of the 21-year-old gay man brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998. This time, as attorney general, Holder, speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee, cited the recent killing of a black security guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The alleged shooter is a white supremacist.
Attorney General ERIC HOLDER (Department of Justice): As the recent tragedy at the Holocaust museum demonstrates, our nation continues to suffer from horrific acts of violence inflicted by individuals consumed with bigotry and prejudice.
CORNISH: The bill would aid local prosecutors in dealing with hate-crimes cases. It would also allow federal prosecutors to step in when asked, or when they think it's appropriate. The legislation hasn't changed much since it was first introduced, and neither has the debate. Democrats, such as New York Senator Charles Schumer, support the bill.
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): If we vote down this legislation, in a certain sense, we are saying it is okay to physically harm people who you don't like because of who they are. And that's a bad thing.
CORNISH: Republicans, such as Alabama's Jeff Sessions, say elevating protections for some groups may have made sense in the past, but not anymore.
Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): African-Americans couldn't go to certain schools. There were other kinds of routine biases against them. Out of that was why this bill passed. But today, I'm not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination.
CORNISH: Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma questioned whether a new law is necessary, whether state and local prosecutors are failing to go after these kinds of crimes.
Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): Do we have statistics that say we have these 80,000 crimes, and 5,000 of them the states did a poor job on?
Atty. Gen. HOLDER: No, I think we…
Sen. COBURN: Do we have any statistics? In other words, I'm trying to find - I have a lot of questions about this bill.
CORNISH: Holder said he had no such statistics, but said hate crimes can be expensive and difficult to prosecute, and states may need help taking them on.
Atty. Gen. HOLDER: What we're looking for is an ability in those instances, those rare instances, where there is an inability or an unwillingness by a state or local jurisdiction to proceed, that the federal government would be able to fill that gap. That's this legislation, we think, is so necessary.
CORNISH: House lawmakers passed a similar bill in April. Both chambers have approved the measure at one time or another over the last few years, but they have never managed to pass it in the same year and get it signed into law. Holder and the administration are pushing hard for this Congress to be the one that succeeds.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.
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