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US law to make homeless crime a hate crime

June 06 2010
Local governments in California and Florida will ensure crimes against homeless people carry heavy penalties
Local governments in California and Florida are introducing new laws to bring crimes against homeless people under the banner of hate crime.

This is defined as when a person is targeted because they are seen to be part of a particular social group, whether it be on grounds of religion, sexual orientation, disability, class, ethnicity and so on. Hate crimes are seen as being motivated by a hatred for one of these social groups.

Alongside physical assault, damage to property, bullying, harassment, verbal abuse or insults, graffiti or offensive mail can all be categorised as 'hate crimes'.

According to the Miami Herald, Florida's governor Charlie Crist has signed an agreement which adds homeless people to the state's existing hate crimes law, meaning that the perpetrators of crimes against homeless people will receive bigger penalties than they had previously.

The local paper also reports that in 2009, The National Coalition for the Homeless ranked Florida first in the US for violence against the homeless for a fourth consecutive year. There had been 30 reported attacks, including three deaths, during 2008. Across the US, 106 attacks were reported that year.

In California, a similar form of enhanced legal protection for homeless people is awaiting final approval from the Government assembly.

The law would not see an increase in penalties for attacking a homeless person, but victims who decided to sue would be eligible for additional compensation. This includes the right to sue for a civil penalty of up to $25,000 (£17,000). A civil penalty means that the perpetrator would not receive a criminal punishment, but may be required to compensate the victim financially.

Bonnie Lowenthal, the government official who proposed the law, said it would crack down on beatings, stabbings and shootings against an extremely vulnerable population. She told the Sacramento Bee: "There is just a tremendous amount of violence perpetrated against homeless people because they are easy prey."

"My hope is that it shatters the sense of safety from consequences that these bullies seem to enjoy."

John Kraintz, a homeless man and leader of an advocacy group, Safe Ground, said: "The homeless are often people who nobody cares about, so right off the bat, [offenders] are thinking that there's not going to be a lot of retribution if they're caught."

Fatal attacks against homeless Californians in recent years have included the stabbing last month of Bernice Nickson, 68, while she slept on a bench, and the burning of John Robert McGraham, 55, who was set afire in Los Angeles two years ago.