Editorial: Kansas hate-crime law would ensure punishment matches the crime

Once again, Kansas is horrified by a murder that surely was precipitated by hate.

And yet, the state does not have a hate-crime law.

It is a lapse that, sadly, has been highlighted by the murder of an India-born engineer who was shot by a man who reportedly screamed, “Get out of my country” before pulling the trigger.

Stamping this despicable act a hate crime would send an unequivocal message at the time charges are filed: Not on our watch. Not in our state.

But this isn’t possible in Kansas.

A bill that would allow for hate-crime charges will be reviewed Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senate Bill 128 calls for doubling penalties if a crime is motivated by bias.

Kansas does have enhanced sentencing for such crimes, enabling judges to level stiffer penalties if an offense was motivated entirely or in part by the race, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin or sexual orientation of the victim, or by the defendant’s belief or perception of these characteristics.

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The state passed enhanced sentencing in 2009. At the time, legislators wanted to address one challenge posed by hate-crime laws. If an act is charged as a hate crime, a higher legal standard must be met, proving that both the crime occurred and that it was motivated by bias. If evidence is lacking on either proposition, the entire case could collapse.

Prosecutors might not want to take that risk. In some cases, they prefer to seek a conviction for the act itself — say a shooting — and then allow the judge or jury to pile on additional penalties if they’re deemed appropriate.

But that route to justice often does not satisfy an important objective of hate-crime laws. And that is sending a message of tolerance in reply.

By definition, hate crimes terrorize more than the intended victim. Crimes motivated by bias target a broad group of people. The death of Srinivas Kuchibhotla sent a chilling message to others who are also foreign-born, particularly immigrants from India.

That’s why Kuchibhotla’s widow asked, “Do we belong?” A hate-crime law would have helped to answer her poignant plea.

Tag a fence encircling the home of an African-American family with a racial slur, punch a Jewish man after mumbling about his yarmulke, or shoot someone because he appears to be foreign-born. Each of these acts could be perceived as a warning, a despicable message of, “you could be next” to black families, to Jewish people and to all immigrants.

Most hate crimes are not murders. Lesser crimes such as assaults and vandalism are more prevalent. And so the penalties are relatively minor, as well.

The bill sponsored by Sen. David Haley, a Democrat of Kansas City, Kan., would change that, doubling the penalties.

With some less violent crimes, it might appear to victims that the hate is more powerful than the punishment. Establishing a hate crime law in Kansas would help correct that.

The state should never again find itself lacking this needed tool. Kansas must be ready to send a powerful response when hate rears its head within the state’s borders.

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