A Step in the Right Direction: Amending State Police Monitoring Laws to Include Hate Crimes Against the Homeless

By Kristen Sherman, Esq.  Adler Pollack & Sheehan

New bills have been introduced into the Rhode Island House and Senate that would expand police monitoring and reporting of “hate crimes” to include offenses against those who are homeless or perceived to be homeless. Under state law, the state police already monitor “hate crimes” that include “threatened, attempted, or completed acts that appear after investigation to have been motivated by racial, religious, ethnic, sexual orientation, gender or disability prejudice.” The records track the crimes by matters such as community in which the crime occurs, type of offense, and target of the offense. If the proposed legislation passes, the monitoring system would also track crimes “motivated by prejudice against a person who is homeless or perceived to be homeless.”

The bills are one step toward protecting the homeless from street violence. According to John Joyce of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP) and Megan Smith, a Brown University student with both RIHAP and Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE), hate crimes against the homeless are “safe crimes” because they often go unpunished. Although it appears that local youth are committing crimes against the homeless, there is insufficient data about who is committing these crimes and where they are taking place to allow law enforcement to work on crime prevention in the first instance. Then, when the crimes do occur, the perpetrators often escape justice because the victims are either too unfamiliar with or afraid of the justice system to seek help. Even when the courts or the police are involved, many such hate crimes against the homeless go unpunished because courts have found that homeless people do not fall within a legally protected class of people. According to Mr. Joyce and Ms. Smith, advocates for the proposed legislation, the homeless have a “bill of no rights.”

Expanding the state police monitoring system to include hate crimes is one piece of a larger and longer-term effort to protect the homeless on both the state and federal levels. On the state level, advocates for the homeless hope in the future to expand Rhode Island’s Hate Crimes Sentencing Act to directly address punishment for hate crimes against the homeless. On the federal level, there is an effort presently to pass legislation that would track hate crimes. The Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act of 2009, co-sponsored by Rhode Island’s Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, would amend the federal Hate Crimes Statistics Act to include crimes against homeless people in the crime data collected by the Attorney General.

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