Tribune Editorial: Utah needs a real hate crimes law

Courtesy of South Salt Lake Police Department This 2015 photo depicts a crime scene -- swastikas spray-painted on a Middle Eastern deli -- which police investigated as a hate crime..

In Utah, it is practically an article of secular faith that the federal government should not do for the states what the states can do for themselves. Thus is it time for the state to step up and deal with the increasing number of hate crimes committed here.

Reported incidents of criminal activity, usually assault, that were attributed to some kind of racial, religious or other animus toward the victims are up across the country and in Utah. Those numbers are evidence that the state needs a functioning means of prosecuting hate crimes for what they are, attacks on the whole of civil society.

And that will require a state statute that actually makes it possible for prosecutors to single out crimes driven by bigotry, unlike the toothless law we have now.

The latest FBI statistics show that Utah, with 66 such incidents reported last year, ranks a mediocre 23rd out of 49 reporting states plus the District of Columbia. The total is up from 47 in 2014 and 50 in 2015.

That is not exactly a skyrocketing increase. But it is still worrisome when one remembers that, as with many types of crime, the majority of such incidents may never be reported to local law enforcement. And many of those that do turn into police reports are not necessarily passed along to the FBI or other national databases.

Utah’s hate crimes statute, which envisions ramping up the penalties for crimes committed due to racial, religious, gender-based or other hatred, has proven unenforceable because it does not include a list of protected groups and only applies to misdemeanor crimes. What prosecutions there are in the state are handled by federal agencies and federal courts which, by their nature, are restricted to the most obvious and violent incidents.

The argument that hate crimes laws somehow criminalize unpopular thoughts is without merit. Such a law only takes actions that are already against the law in every civilized society — murder, rape, assault, vandalism, theft — and increases the penalties for such acts when it can be shown that they were driven by hostility toward a victim’s race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or other identifiable characteristic. That is important because such acts committed out of hate are not merely directed at the individual victim, as other crimes usually are, but are intended to intimidate all others of the same group.

And such laws do not just favor minorities. A hate-driven act against a rich, white, male Mormon would be included, as well.

Utah should step up and take responsibility for reacting to the growth in hate crimes with the kind of law prosecutors needs to combat it effectively.