House panel considers bills to crack down on hate crimes

By: - June 6, 2023 11:45 am

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy speaks alongside Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Rep. Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield) at a House Criminal Justice Committee meeting on June 6, 2023. | Photo by Anna Liz Nichols

Prosecutors lack the tools needed to fairly charge hate crimes in Michigan, state Attorney General Dana Nessel and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy told lawmakers Tuesday in support of bills to expand Michigan’s hate crime laws.

Nessel and Worthy noted in the House Criminal Justice Committee Tuesday that current hate crime laws, which help to prosecute malicious vandalism of property and other forms of intimidation, do not include protections for the LGBTQ+ community, the elderly or individuals with disabilities. Wayne County, Michigan’s most populous county, prosecutes more criminal cases than the rest of the state’s counties combined, Worthy said. She added state law currently only sets out to protect some Michiganders, not all and not the most vulnerable populations.

“You feel very bad for weeks on end when you look at someone who has been terribly brutalized, someone who is scared … and you look them in the face and tell them, ‘Because of Michigan’s law, there’s nothing I can do for you,’” Worthy said. “And we have to live with that.”

The House committee solicited input on House Bills 4474-4477, which were introduced in April and would enact the Michigan Hate Crime Act and the Institutional Desecration Act, update sentencing guidelines and make it easier to prosecute individuals who target others for their ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or disability. Lawmakers on Tuesday did not take a vote on moving the legislation out of committee.

Without expanded charging guidelines that would allow prosecutors to attribute hate crime penalties to the appropriate offenses, prosecutors often have to charge under inappropriate penalties that do not do enough to prevent further and increasingly serious crimes, Worthy and Nessel told legislators. Worthy said this sends a message that, “we tolerate hate crimes in the state.”

Nessel, who has worked as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, testified that in the cases of bias-related homicides or attempted homicides, there were always less serious crimes defendants perpetrated previously that built up to a more lethal offense.

“These are some of the most disturbing types of cases not only because they target individuals, but because the real intention is to target an entire community of people and instill them with fear,” Nessel said.

Two of the four bills being considered Tuesday, HB 4474 and HB 4475, would expand the definition of hate crimes to include protection from violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, age and disability.

The legislation would increase the penalty for hate crimes for defendants with previous convictions of hate crimes or if the current incident of hate crime resulted in bodily injury from a felony. If passed and signed by the governor, the legislation would allow for those convicted of hate crimes to be sentenced to as many as five years in prison and/or pay up to a $10,000 fine. Currently, there is a maximum two-year prison sentence and/or a $5,000 fine.

Rep. Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield), who is leading the charge on these hate crime bills, said as a proud Jew and gay man he will not continue to watch hate crimes grow in the state of Michigan without a fight.

Michigan was fifth in the nation for the number of reported antisemitic incidents in 2021 and fourth for white supremacist propaganda distribution in 2022, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

“We can demonstrate that Michigan’s justice system will treat hate crimes with the seriousness and severity that they are due,” Arbit said. “Now is our moment to send a message that we will not tolerate hate crimes anywhere in the state of Michigan.” 

HB 4476 and HB4477 would create an Institutional Desecration Act for acts of destruction and vandalism or threats of that nature against places of worship, cemeteries and educational facilities, among other structures.

Penalties vary on the value of destruction and previous convictions. The parameters start at a maximum 93 days of incarceration and/or a $500 fine for first-time offenders responsible for less than $200 worth of damage. The parameters max out at a 10-year maximum prison sentence and/or a fine of up to $15,000 or three times the value of the destruction, whichever is greater for individuals responsible for more than $20,000 worth of destruction, regardless of previous convictions.


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Anna Liz Nichols
Anna Liz Nichols

Anna Liz Nichols covers government and statewide issues, including criminal justice, environmental issues, education and domestic and sexual violence. Anna is a former state government reporter for The Associated Press and most recently was a reporter for the Detroit News. Anna is a graduate of Michigan State University.