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Middlesex district attorney, state lawmakers file bill to close loophole in hate crime statute

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 3/4/2021 Travis Andersen
a person sitting on a table: Middlesex County District Attorney Marian T. Ryan in her office in 2013. © Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston G Middlesex County District Attorney Marian T. Ryan in her office in 2013.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan and two lawmakers have filed a bill to close a loophole in state law that allows people to avoid being charged with hate crimes if they harass or intimidate someone by scrawling slurs on property that doesn’t belong to the victim, Ryan said Thursday.

“I think this is important because of the uptick” in recent years in hate-fueled vandalism, Ryan said. “And we need to address that.”

Ryan said a key provision of the bill, filed Feb. 5 with Representative Christine Barber and Senator Cynthia Creem, would allow prosecutors to charge people with civil rights violations if they target victims because of their race, religion, or other protected status by, for example, writing a slur on a neighbor’s property that the victims would see when leaving or entering their residences.

The same provision, she said, would apply to tenants who are targeted with hateful graffiti or vandalism on property they’re renting, or on public property. It would also apply when someone targets a college student with hateful graffiti on school property.

Under current law in these cases, she said, perpetrators could be charged with property destruction but not hate-related crimes. Those latter crimes carry a maximum fine of $5,000 and up to 2½ years in jail, according to the state’s legislative website.

“This is a very straightforward piece” to fix the original statute, Ryan said. “I don’t think the original statute was intended to . . . allow conduct to go unpunished if [a victim] is less financially resourced and didn’t own what was being damaged.”

In addition, she said, the bill would require property owners — whether municipalities or private citizens — to use restitution payments they receive to repair damage caused by perpetrators.

Ryan said the bill is an outgrowth of work her office started after noticing an uptick in such offenses about a year ago.

Her office has also created an Anti-Hate, Anti-Bias Task Force and hired a director.

Ryan on Thursday announced the hiring of Antonia Soares Thompson as director of racial justice initiatives in the district attorney’s office, a new post. Soares Thompson, Ryan’s office said in a statement, will “deepen and expand” the office’s commitment to racial justice and the fairness of its prosecutorial work, as well as create and implement training and education initiatives on racial equity across the county.

When the task force was formed in September, Ryan said it was in response to several incidents, including the defacing of a George Floyd mural in Stoneham, anti-Semitic graffiti in Arlington and Bedford, and a man who allegedly drove his vehicle at Black Lives Matter protesters in Newton.

Ryan said Thursday that the authorities “will not and cannot tolerate this kind of behavior. Residents have a right to be safe and protected where they live, where they work, where they go to school. . . . People think Massachusetts is a very accepting place. That doesn’t mean we’re not having these kinds of incidents.”

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