State lawmakers provide tougher penalties for racially motivated vandalism, harassment

Vandalism to churches and synagogues and other acts of bigotry are finally on the decline, but the end is not in sight. Anti-Semitic and racially motivated attacks on minorities, their property, and houses of worship are increasingly condemned by public officials, civil-rights activists, and concerned citizens across the United States.

Within the past three years, seven states - including some of those where the problems of violence or harassment has been most challenging - have enacted comprehensive laws providing tougher penalties for vandalism and harassment motivated by the victim's race, color, religion, or national origin.

Similar proposals are moving forward or awaiting the attention of lawmakers in at least six states.

In Massachusetts, for example, civil-rights groups - including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai Brith, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, the Black Ecumenical Council, and the Catholic Conference - are backing a measure to provide up to five years in prison for willful destruction of property.

The legislation also embraces heavier fines of up to $2,000 or three times the property damage (whichever is greater) for someone who ''intentionally or wantonly and without cause destroys, defaces, mars, or injures a church, synagogue, or other building, structure, or place used for burial or memorializing the dead.'' Similarly covered are schools and community centers and their grounds.

Such proposals are described by their sponsors as both a response against the increase in violence and harassment in some states and a statement that men and women of goodwill are steadfast in their opposition to such violence.

They assert it also is a recognition that each act of racially or religiously motivated violence is in reality two wrongs - a wrong against the victims who are deprived of their fundamental right to live in peace and safety and a wrong against society as a whole.

The current drive to combat racism through stiffer penalties for prejudice-rooted attacks on persons or property comes at a time when the harassment of both blacks and Jews appears to be increasing across the nation.

A recently compiled ADL study of anti-Semitic incidents showed that bigotry-spurred vandalism or violence (such as painting swastikas on a synagogue) declined nearly 15 percent to 829 in 1982. In contrast, anti-Semitic harassment (which includes threatening telephone calls and mail or name-calling) increased sharply from 350 to 593. That is a jump of 46.5 percent.

More than two-thirds of the harassment occurred in six states - 191 in New York, 74 in California, 42 in Minnesota, 37 in Massachusetts, 33 in Missouri, and 22 in New Jersey.

Incidents of harassment were up in 23 states, down in 9, and the same in 1. No such violations were reported in the remaining states.

Meanwhile, acts of anti-Semitic violence against persons or property decreased in 21 states, and were the game in two. But in 17 others, including Massachusetts and Florida, total acts of vandalism attributed to anti-Semitism increased.

Over 80 percent of those arrested for vandalism and other anti-Semitic violations last year were under age 20, according to the ADL analysis.

Besides Massachusetts, measures providing stiffer penalties for vandalism or intimidation based on race or religion have been introduced or are being readied for consideration in Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, and South Carolina.

Such measures, most of which are patterned after a model drafted by the ADL, have been put on the books in California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Washington during the past two years.

Several other states have added or toughened existing laws against certain types of racial or religious bias, notes Ruti Teitel, the ADL's assistant director for legal affairs.

Measures covering such acts as desecration of religious property and cross burnings have been enacted in ''a number of states over the year,'' she adds.

Scorning the increase in what he terms ''hate activities'' directed against members of minority groups, Leonard Zakim, ADL's New England regional director, holds that passage of the pending legislation is much needed.

He says such measures ''would send a clear message'' to police and prosecutors, as well as to victims and perpetrators of acts of bigotry, that such problems ''will no longer be treated as routine.''

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