Bill would help the homeless

Senate votes to expand protections provided by hate-crimes law

General Assembly

March 07, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

The Maryland Senate overwhelmingly approved a measure yesterday that would extend the state's hate-crimes law to cover acts against the homeless.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Alex X. Mooney of Frederick, was approved, 38-9, after limited debate.

"We should get to a point in America where we don't need hate crimes and we don't need special classes, but we're not there yet," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat who voted for the proposal yesterday.

Mooney introduced the bill last session, but it was voted down because some lawmakers believed that Mooney, who had opposed the statute's expansion in 2005 to include gays and lesbians, was only attempting to dilute the impact of the hate-crimes law.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, said yesterday that he opposed the measure because he believes that distinctions should not be made for particular groups. The proposal, Pipkin said, undermines the Constitution.

"All crimes are hateful," he said.

If the bill is approved by the House of Delegates and signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, Maryland would become the first state to protect the homeless under such a statute. Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman, said the governor supports Mooney's legislation.

The bill would add the homeless to a statute that offers additional protections to people who are the victims of crimes because of their race, color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or national origin.

Representatives of the Maryland Catholic Conference, Health Care for the Homeless, the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty testified in favor of the bill. Gladden, who had voted against the bill last year, said that their testimony and Mooney's presentation of a video called Bumfights - in which the homeless are paid to fight each other and attempt dangerous stunts - convinced her that there is a real and growing problem.

For a violation that does not include a separate felony, a person could be found guilty of a misdemeanor and would be subject to imprisonment for up to three years and a fine of $5,000. If an individual commits a related felony, the punishment could carry up to a 10-year jail sentence and a fine of up to $10,000. If an act results in the death of a victim, a person could be sentenced to 20 years in prison and a $20,000 fine in addition to the sentences for any other convictions.

Statistics about violent crimes against the homeless are difficult to collect, advocates say, because of the transient lifestyle of the victims. But the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that nationally over the past eight years, there have been 618 acts of violence against the homeless, leading to 189 deaths.

Four other states - California, Massachusetts, Texas and Florida - are considering proposals similar to Mooney's this year.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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