PORTLAND, Ore. — Many people say Oregon needs to get tougher on hate crimes. Under the current law, if someone commits a hate crime alone the most they can be charged with is a misdemeanor.
This issue really became clear after a black teen was intentionally run down by a man who was part of a white supremacist prison gang. He was convicted of murder and a hate crime, but his punishment for the hate crime was less than many say it should've been because of Oregon's laws.
Under Oregon's current law, two people have to be involved in a hate crime for it to be considered a felony. For many, this is unacceptable.
"We need to make sure that people who commit hate crimes and hate incidents know that there's consequences of their actions,” explained Kayse Jama, the executive director of Unite Oregon.
Jama said he has seen hate crimes and hate incidents increase over the years, even at his own office. They have to lock the doors during business hours because people were harassing and threatening employees because of their work on racial and social justice issues. Jama said the laws need to reflect the views of the community and show Oregon will not stand for hate.
"We have to send out the message to our community that we cannot tolerate hate crimes and we cannot tolerate hate incidents,” Jama said.
Oregon Senator Lew Frederick is one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 577 that would change the laws. He said the current law was written the way it is because of what was going on at the time.
“It came into effect when we were dealing with a number of gangs who were doing things, running around, not individuals so much,” Senator Frederick explained.
The 1988 murder of Mulugeta Seraw, a 28-year-old college student from Ethiopia, by a group of white supremacists, was an example of why the law was needed. But, fast forward to 2016, when 19-year-old Larnell Bruce Jr. was intentionally run down by a man who was a member of a white supremacist prison gang. Larnell’s parents still mourn his death.
“It's hard to talk about, it's tough, we miss him a great deal,” explained Larnell and Natasha Bruce, Larnell Bruce Jr.’s parents. “We think about him every day, you know, it doesn't get any easier.”
Larnell's case shows a need for change. Russell Courtier, the man convicted of his murder, got life in prison for that charge. However, the laws kept him from getting a harsher sentence for the hate crime charge. Senate Bill 577 would change that.
The bill would also establish a hate crimes hotline for victims to call and would change how hate crimes are reported and tracked.
The bill is currently in front of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means. Several legislators said Monday, it is now moving forward after some doubts. One representative said that is thanks in part to all of the attention it has received in the last week. Several groups wrote letters urging for this to be passed, which showed just how important this change is to Oregon.