CHEYENNE – Two draft bills addressing bias motivated crimes, or hate crimes, failed to be sponsored Tuesday by the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee.
One draft bill would have amended Wyoming Statute 6-9-102, which currently prohibits discrimination because of “race, color, sex, creed or national origin” to also include religion.
A proposed amendment to that bill, introduced by Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, proposed the creation of a felony hate crime charge for anyone who, “with the intent to intimidate or harass another person because of the other person’s race, color, sex, religion or national origin,” causes serious bodily injury to a person, or who causes property destruction of $1,000 or more.
A second draft bill would have added to state statute that, alongside uniform reporting forms for other crime statistics, the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office include forms for “crimes that exhibit evidence of prejudice.”
It also sought to establish a statewide reporting system for “crimes that exhibit evidence of prejudice based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, ancestry and ethnicity.”
In testimony before the committee, Cara Chambers, director of the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office’s Division of Victim Services, suggested changing the language in both draft bills to reflect the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, a federal hate crime statute that prohibits crimes “because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability of any person.”
Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, former state representative and Wyoming Equality Director Sara Burlingame and ACLU of Wyoming’s Sabrina King testified in support of Chambers’ suggestion to reflect the federal statute’s categories in both draft bills.
Burlingame said the “patchwork of definitions” of hate crimes among the counties made it difficult for law enforcement to do their jobs.
A motion to include the language of the federal hate crime statute failed, however, with some committee members concerned that the federal statute could, at some point, change and become something Wyoming isn’t comfortable with.
In response to committee members’ questions, Chambers explained that a state law is important to have, in addition to a federal law, because state and county prosecutors can’t prosecute federal crimes, and discrimination cases can’t always go to federal court.
Wyoming is among the last states in the U.S. without a hate crime law, according to the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights organizations.
Still, some weren’t happy with the proposed bill, including Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper.
“To pass this law just so we can say, ‘Yep, we got one, check the box,’ I still think we’re going to be subject to all of the same criticisms that we’re subject to now if we pass this,” Washut said. “It just seems to me to be symbolism over substance.”
Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, the committee’s co-chair, pushed back on Washut’s claim that Zwoniter’s amendment lacked substance.
“It’s far different than what we’ve done, and if it doesn’t satisfy some of those concerns, I’m not sure what would,” Nethercott said. “It’s probably the most we could do, and I think it’s a pretty profound amendment, quite frankly.”
That amendment passed, but a subsequent motion to have the committee sponsor the bill did not.
Much of the discussion surrounding the draft bill related to crime reporting laws focused on general compliance, not just biased crime reporting.
The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation currently collects crime data through the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS. Law enforcement agencies were required to switch over from a previous program to NIBRS by Jan. 1.
However, Chambers said, 21 of the state’s 59 law enforcement agencies still don’t report their crime data to NIBRS – typically because of an issue with a software vendor or lack of staffing.
She later added that DCI grants can take up to a 10-percent hit when the state is noncompliant with NIBRS reporting.
Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, said the transition to NIBRS was prompted by law enforcement organizations.
And although the FBI announced in December 2015 it would be moving to NIBRS, it took another two or three years for the federal government to set criteria so vendors could develop compliant software, Oedekoven said.
Some committee members suggested possible consequences for local law enforcement agencies that fail to implement NIBRS.
Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, suggested agencies lose 3% of their funding if they aren’t NIBRS compliant within a year.
Others, like Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, stressed that it didn’t seem likely that the majority of agencies were being willfully noncompliant. Oakley added that she would not support any proposal that could take money away from law enforcement agencies.
Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, pushed back.
“Our role as legislators is oversight, in many ways – so if for some reason our law enforcement is not obeying the law, we should do something about it,” he said, adding that he did not want to kill the bill. “Otherwise, we will just have worthless statistics until the end of time, and then never be able to make any policy decisions with worthless statistics.”
As for bias crime reporting, Chambers said DCI already provides a uniform form for these crimes.
A motion to have the committee sponsor the bill failed, with only Yin and Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, voting in favor.