Garland launches internal Justice Dept. review to improve hate-crime tracking, prosecutions

Judge Merrick Garland is shown during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 22, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman

WASHINGTON – Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday (March 30, 2021) announced that the Justice Department will conduct a 30-day internal review to determine how the agency can bolster the tracking and prosecutions of hate crimes and bias incidents motivated around race, gender and other factors.

In his first executive memo to staff since taking office, Garland said hate crimes have a “toxic effect” on society and emphasized that reports of rising discrimination and violence aimed at Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic required “renewed energy and emphasis” from the federal law enforcement agency.

Among the aims, he said, would be improving hate crime data collection, prioritizing investigations and prosecutions, and using civil authorities to target unlawful acts of bias that do not meet the federal definition of a hate crimes.

The Justice Department “will continue to seek justice for the victims of the hate-filled mass murders that we have seen too many times in the past several years,” Garland said, in the wake of mass shootings this months in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo.

The Atlanta suspect, Robert Aaron Long, who is White, is charged with killing eight, including six women of Asian descent, at three spas. The Boulder suspect, Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, is a native of Syria who is charged with killing 10 at a grocery store.

The move came as part of a broader Biden administration response Tuesday to mounting pressure from Asian American advocates. In a separate announcement, the White House said it would reinstate an initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and allocate nearly $50 million in new grants at the Department of Health and Human Services to assist survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault with new outreach to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).

“The AAPI community has endured a difficult, heart-wrenching year,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said in a statement. “There is no doubt that our community is still at risk. I applaud President (Joe) Biden for recognizing our community’s pain and taking concrete actions to protect AAPI individuals from violence and root out anti-Asian bias while also supporting the victims of hate crimes.”

Five federal hate crimes statutes cover attacks motivated by race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. A total of 47 states have a patchwork of their own hate-crime provisions.

Under a 1990 law signed by President George H.W. Bush, the Justice Department has been required to track hate crimes nationwide every year, but the FBI’s count has been plagued by inconsistent reporting from more than 18,000 local law enforcement agencies.

Last fall, the FBI reported 7,314 hate crimes nationwide in 2019, the most in a decade – but experts said the statistics were woefully inadequate because too few local law enforcement agencies fully participate in federal data collection efforts. The FBI said that 15,588 law enforcement organizations participated in the 2019 hate crimes study, but just 2,172 agencies reported the total number of incidents contained in the report.

Asian American community groups have begun tallies of their own through self-reporting portals. Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based collective founded after the start of the pandemic, announced it has logged nearly 3,800 incidents. Of those, 70 percent were slurs and name-calling and about 11 percent constituted assaults.

Some civil rights advocates have called for the Justice Department to tie federal grant funding to improved training and tracking of hate crimes. But legislation that would allocate more money for such initiatives stalled in the Senate last year amid opposition from Republicans after passing the House on a bipartisan vote. Many GOP lawmakers have said they believe hate-crime laws are redundant.

Other civil rights advocates have cautioned against some efforts to bolster hate-crime units among local police, citing the potential for increased racial profiling and abusive tactics that could disproportionately harm African American communities.

Police investigating the Atlanta shooting have said there is no evidence yet that Long was motivated by racial grievance. A patron of the spas, Long reportedly told investigators that he wanted to eliminate sexual “temptation.” But Asian American members of Congress and community leaders have called the shooting a hate crime that terrorized Atlanta’s Asian American and immigrant communities.

Garland, who met with Asian American leaders on a video conference two weeks ago, said in his memo that the review would seek to ensure that U.S. attorneys’ offices have sufficient resources to prioritize hate-crime investigations. The Justice Department also will seek to bolster community outreach, the memo stated.

The review will be led by the agency’s acting deputy attorney general, John Carlin. Biden’s nominees as Garland’s top two deputies, Lisa Monaco and Vanita Gupta, completed their confirmation hearings but have yet to receive a Senate vote. Civil rights lawyer Kristen Clarke, who Biden nominated to oversee the department’s Civil Rights division, is still awaiting her Senate hearing.

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