- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Lawmakers in St. Paul want people who commit hate crimes to face stiffer penalties in Minnesota.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday passed a measure that would increase the maximum penalties for felony assaults by 25 percent if they’re motivated by bias, such as a victim’s race or religion.

Sen. Ron Latz brought the bill in response to an incident in which a Somali woman was allegedly attacked for not speaking English at a restaurant. Asma Jama says she was attacked by a fellow patron at a Coon Rapids Applebee’s restaurant on in October because she was speaking Swahili.

Latz said Friday that prosecutors charged the alleged attacker with third-degree assault and not a hate crime because the maximum penalty for hate crimes is only a gross misdemeanor. He said it’s incumbent upon lawmakers to change state law to allow prosecutors to lobby harsh penalties against people that commit these crimes.

“A crime that is motivated by bias is uniquely corrupting to our society,” he said. “It’s an offense not only against the individual victim of the physical assault, but it’s an offense against all of the community.”

Latz said right now he’s only targeting hate crimes involving felony assaults because of Jama’s case. His bill was passed and referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

Jama testified in front of the committee and told lawmakers how a woman had struck her with a thick glass beer mug on Oct. 30 because she and her relatives had been speaking Swahili among one another.

Jama has said the incident has left her scared to leave her home and even question whether she should leave the state, where she has lived since emigrating from Kenya in 2000.

Lawmakers on the committee sympathized with the woman, but a few questioned why the state should only increase penalties for hate crimes - and not all felony assaults.

Sen. Scott Newman, a Republican from Hutchinson, said it often seems to him that society “elevates” the victim of a hate crime to be more important than victims of other crimes that involve things such as vengeance or anger.

“What we’re really supposed to be doing is treating everybody the same,” he said. “If we’re going to enhance penalty in one, why do we not enhance the penalty in another?”

Latz responded that he thinks crimes motivated by envy or anger can be particularly offensive to an individual but not necessarily to society as whole.

“When the assault is because of a perception that is much broader in concept, in this case race or nationality or skin color, to me that’s a much more egregious kind of conduct,” he said, “and we ought to make a special statement as a society that it’s not appropriate.”

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Follow Kevin Burbach on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/kevinburbach

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