Connecticut lawmakers on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed legislation that advocates believe will become the strongest hate crimes legislation in the U.S.
Democratic and Republican senators said they hope their unanimous vote sends a strong message to the rest of the country that bigotry will not be tolerated. The bill, passed on the penultimate day of this year's regular legislative session, also was a show of unity in a closely divided General Assembly that is at odds over how to resolve a massive budget deficit and other issues.
"It is nice to know that we can bridge the gap, across the aisle, work together, to pass landmark legislation that makes it very clear that the little state of Connecticut and that portion of the United States that's called New England finds some things completely unacceptable for a free and peaceful constituency," said Sen. John Kissel.
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The bill already cleared the House of Representatives and now heads to the governor for consideration.
The legislation makes commission of a hate crime a felony instead of a misdemeanor. Violence and threats based on a person's gender would now be considered a hate crime under the bill. Connecticut's current law only protects gender identity or expression, not gender.
Among other things, the bill also increases the penalty for making a bomb threat or threat of violence against a house of worship, religious community center, other religious institutions or any day care facility. It would be a class C felony, punishable by one to 10 years in prison. Currently, the crime is a class D felony, punishable by one to five years in prison. This puts the penalty for such threats on par with threats made against schools in Connecticut.
Additionally, the bill allows a court to order extensive and relevant community service for those convicted of committing a hate crime. There's also a minimum fine of $1,000 for individuals convicted under the state's hate crime legislation.
"It's critical that we respond legislatively to the unacceptable increase in religious hate crimes we are seeing in our country," said Sen. Paul Doyle.
Various incidents involving hate crimes have occured in Connecticut in recent years, including a man who fired a rifle at a mosque, swastikas painted at a high school and Nazi pictures sent to a synagogue.
Alan Levin, the regional civil rights chairman of the Connecticut Anti-Defamation League, said incidents of anti-Semitic crimes have increased 34 percent nationally from 2015 to 2016, while they've increased 68 percent in Connecticut during the same time period.
He said the ADL is tracking state hate crime legislation and that Connecticut's bill would be the toughest nationally if it is ultimately signed into law by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.