Transgender hate crimes

Legislation to enhance prison sentences for people who commit crimes against transgender people sure was popular. It passed the state Senate with only a single dissenting vote, and just 11 of 42 Assembly members voted against it. Gov. Brian Sandoval quickly signed the bill into law.

But that popularity doesn’t erase serious questions about the law, which adds from one to 20 years in prison if it’s determined a defendant was motivated to commit a crime because of what the law calls a person’s “gender identity or expression.” The law also requires the state Department of Public Safety to keep track of so-called hate crimes so authorities can review incidents allegedly motivated by prejudice.

Hate-crime laws are nothing new in Nevada. Nevada Revised Statutes already provides additional penalties for people who commit crimes based upon a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, physical or mental disability or sexual orientation. Senate Bill 139 — introduced by freshman state Sen. Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas — adds “gender identity or expression” to the list.

But the questions that apply to all hate-crime laws still persist. Foremost among them: Why should we punish people for their thoughts, rather than their actions? Isn’t an aggravated assault, a robbery, a murder evil enough, regardless of what motivated it? While dislike of gays, lesbians or transgender people is ugly and unwarranted, we start down a very dangerous path when we make ideas illegal.

Proponents will argue that thoughts are not the issue, unless and until those thoughts motivate a person to commit a crime. But existing laws that criminalize violence against anybody — for any reason — are more than sufficient to protect all members of society without creating special circumstances or special protections for special groups of people. Yes, these groups have suffered oppression. But the victims of all crimes deserve justice, no matter the motivation.

SB139 gained the support of the Legislature and the governor, and now it goes on the books. It would have been better to enhance the penalties for all violent crime against all people, regardless of motivation. In the end, that’s equal protection under law, which remains the goal of our justice system.

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