The Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Act Celebrates its 5th Anniversary

The Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Act Celebrates its 5th Anniversary

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Five years ago, on October 28, 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. This landmark civil rights legislation was named after two people: Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming who was gay, and James Byrd Jr., a 49-year-old African-American man living in Jasper, Texas. Both were brutally murdered in terrible acts of hate and intolerance.

The Shepard-Byrd Act, named in their honor, expanded the list of federal hate crimes protections to include those based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability. The act also removed a number of unnecessary hurdles to prosecuting hate crimes which are committed due to race, color, or national origin. It also gave the Justice Department new tools for prosecuting criminals and gave new resources to law enforcement agencies so that they can much better serve their communities. And it has also made it possible for more Americans to live freely and openly, reinforcing our nation’s belief that all people are created equal and the commitment of the United States to ensure that its citizens enjoy that equality.

Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, and James Byrd Jr.’s sister, Louvon Harris, were present at the White House to recognize the fifth anniversary of the Shepard-Byrd Act. Also present was Rana Singh Sodhi, the brother of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a peace-loving member of the Sikh faith, who is believed to be the first murder victim due to post-9/11 backlash. This 5th anniversary event was an opportunity to recognize how the Shepard-Byrd Act has improved the ability to address hate crimes, and the tremendous amount of work that still remains.

To continue that work, new initiatives were announced which will strengthen hate crime prevention efforts. A new Interagency Initiative on Hate Crimes, coordinated by the White House Domestic Policy Council, was launched in order to promote cross-agency collaboration and address prevention of violent hate crimes, as well as effective responses to those crimes. The Department of Justice also announced several actions that will strengthen and improve the federal government’s ability to prevent and respond to hate crimes. This includes a new series of training sessions on the Shepard-Byrd Act around the country for both state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies and other community leaders.

In the past five years (from 2009-2013), the Department of Justice has charged 201 defendants on federal hate crimes or charges related to hate crimes, including the Shepard-Byrd Act and other federal hate crimes provisions — which is an increase of almost 50% from the prior five years (2004-2008). The Department also successfully convicted almost 50% more defendants on federal hate crimes or hate crimes-related charges, compared to the prior five years. These new announcements will help us to continue to aggressively investigate and prosecute hate crimes nationwide. The Shepard-Byrd Act is an important reminder that we all can and must come together despite our differences to combat hate and violence in our country.

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