WASHINGTON – Supporters of expanding hate crime law to include acts of violence against gays and lesbians scored a surprise win in the House, boosting their hopes on an issue repeatedly blocked in Congress.
With the help of 30 Republicans, House Democrats on Wednesday pushed through a measure that would add sexual orientation, gender and disability to protections covered by federal hate crime law. Under current law, the federal government assists local and state authorities prosecuting limited types of crimes based on the victim's race, religion or ethnic background.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. (search), offered the measure, which passed 223-199, as an amendment to legislation strengthening the monitoring of and increasing penalties for child sex offenders.
Joe Solmonese (search), president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, said it was an "incredibly historic vote" that could give momentum to similar action in the Senate.
"This legislation is long overdue," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (search). "All Americans have a fundamental right to feel safe in their communities."
The Senate last year voted to give gays and lesbians protection under federal hate crime law, but conservatives succeeded in blocking House agreement.
The sex offender bill, with the hate crimes measure, sailed through the House on a 371-52 vote, and now heads to the Senate.
The legislation strengthens sex offender registration and notification programs, creates a national Web site where the public can track sex offenders and establishes federal mandatory minimum sentences both for sex crimes and the failure of sex offenders to report on their whereabouts.
It requires felony offenders to register for life and authorizes the death penalty for sex crimes resulting in the killing of a child. House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said it responds to a situation where law enforcement officials can't locate some 100,000 of about 550,000 convicted sex offenders.
The White House, in a statement, expressed support, saying that even though sex crimes against children have declined significantly in recent years, more needs to be done. It noted that the legislation codified the online National Sex Offender Public Registry that the Justice Department launched earlier this year.
Critics said it could further ostracize people who have paid for their crimes and are trying to live normal lives. Out-of-jail offenders facing harassment or unable to get jobs "may just go underground and not bother to register again," said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va. (search).
Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C. (search), offered an amendment to eliminate several mandatory minimum sentences, including one creating a minimum penalty of five years and a maximum of 20 years for offenders who fail to comply with registration requirements. It was defeated, 316-106.
Among the many amendments accepted was one by Sensenbrenner that would help local law officials find the estimated 15,000 sex offenders who may have relocated as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
Another, by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. (search), provides for the civil confinement of violent sex offenders deemed by a panel of experts as too dangerous to return to society.
The bill also:
_Creates a national Web site and requires states to notify the federal government of any changes to a sex offender's registration information. States are required to notify each other when a sex offender moves from one state to another.
_Requires each state to maintain a statewide Internet site to include such information as an offender's address, picture, vehicle and facts of his conviction.
_Broadens the category of sex offenders to include any felony or misdemeanor sex offenses against minors. The category of crimes covered by the bill is expanded to include juvenile sex offenses and possession of child pornography.
_Requires felony sex offenders to register for life, and misdemeanor sex offenders for 20 years.
_Creates a verification program under which a sex offender must report by mail every 30 days.
_Requires criminal background checks of prospective foster care families.
_Expands the use of DNA evidence to solve sex crimes.