Just outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, state Democratic lawmakers announced a package of bills Thursday to address a nationwide increase in hate crimes.
“We are elected leaders, we are the folks that have the power, and there is a great desire for us to take action,” said state Rep. Dan Frankel of Squirrel Hill. “Today, this package of bills is that potential action.”
The bills have not been introduced in Harrisburg yet. But according to cosponsorship memos being circulated among legislators, they include a measure to increase penalties for hate crimes, and require perpetrators to take diversity classes that “relate to the motivating factor of the individual’s hatred” as a condition of their probation or parole. Other language would allow district attorneys to request additional resources from the attorney general to investigate ethnic intimidation.
“One of the things we want to be able to do is ... give the attorney general the opportunity with concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute these cases,” said state Sen. Jay Costa (D-Forest Hills), alongside Frankel and state Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Lincoln-Lemington).
Other bills would: mandate more training for the police officers that investigate cases of ethnic intimidation; require colleges and universities to provide anonymous online hate crime reporting platforms; and give the attorney general the authority to track hate groups in a database.
Frankel said there’s already bipartisan support for the legislation, which he said he'd discussed with House Speaker Mike Turzai, a Republican from Bradford Woods.
“He’s promised me the opportunity to try and work through these things with him, and he will try and be supportive,” Frankel said. With Republicans controlling both houses of the legislature, he said, “There’s just no way we can do this just as Democrats. It needs to be bipartisan and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be bipartisan. Hopefully we can prevent any other community from having the experience that Squirrel Hill had on October 27, 2018.”
It was on that date that Tree of Life became the site of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. Eleven congregants were killed in a mass shooting during Saturday morning services. And hate crimes generally may be on the rise: According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2017, 8,437 hate crime offenses were reported nationwide. That was a 17 percent increase.
Some other hate-crime legislation is already pending in Harrisburg. Other lawmakers have introduced legislation to that would extend hate-crime protections to include sexual orientation, gender identity and people with mental or physical disabilities. Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Wayne Langerholc, meanwhile, introduced legislation that would create a new criminal offense for violence motivated by hate against law enforcement.
“It saddens me that we have to create legislation,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, of the Tree of Life congregation, who spoke at Thursday's event. “Everyone who came [to the United States] was escaping some sort of bigotry, racism, some sort of evil where they lived. [They] came to America with the promise that we could all live together -- we could all find some way to make this amazing experiment work. And yet here we stand, because the experiment still needs to be tweaked. It’s not working yet.”
Lawmakers expect to introduce the legislation in both the House and Senate sometime soon.