Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — The Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly approved a bill Monday that would increase the penalty for hate crimes in Connecticut.

The bill, which was the subject of some partisan wrangling when it was introduced by Democratic lawmakers in March, was approved by a 38-1 vote. Only Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, voted against it.

Democratic lawmakers had pointed to the election of Republican President Donald Trump as a turning point for an increase in hate crimes when they held a press conference on the legislation in the middle of March.

Republican lawmakers, who weren’t invited to the press conference, accused Democrats of making it a partisan issue for no reason.

Senate Republican President Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said, when he first heard about the bill, the best way to combat hate would have been to show unity in the fight against it.

“Connecticut Democrats from the beginning chose to turn a certainly bipartisan issue into a completely partisan press conference,” Fasano said in March. “Instead of working with Republicans to show a united front against hate crimes in our state, Democrats chose political theater. Instead of making today about standing together, Democrats made it about standing apart. Divisiveness cannot fight hate.”

Republican leadership didn’t respond to requests for comment Monday following passage of the legislation.

The bill would increase the penalty for a hate crimes against a group of persons from a misdemeanor to a felony. It also adds hate crimes based on gender. Current law only protects “gender identity or expression” and not gender.

It also strengthens the penalty for desecrating any house of worship or any religious cemetery from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class C felony if there is more than $10,000 in damage. If the damage is less than $10,000 it would be a Class D felony.

It establishes a mandatory minimum fine of $1,000 for individuals convicted of hate crimes and requires the money to be deposited in a fund for anti-hate crime education initiatives. It also creates a statewide Hate Crimes Advisory Council.

Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics show that there were 95 hate-related incidents reported to Connecticut law enforcement agencies in 2015 and 66 percent were based on race, ethnicity, or ancestry of the victim.

“Today’s vote in the Judiciary Committee sends a strong message that hate crimes and bigotry have no place in Connecticut,” Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven.

Looney said in recent months, incidents of hate — including murders, assaults, bomb threats, and vandalism — have been directed against African-Americans, Hindu-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, Sikh-Americans, transgender women, and others in both Connecticut and across the country.

“Our hate crimes proposal will make Connecticut the national leader in the fight against these despicable acts, and it will serve as a model for other states looking to combat hate crimes based on bigotry and bias,” Looney said. “I am pleased that the Republicans joined in supporting this Democratic proposal.”

Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, said the legislation “is a response to an unfortunate increase in hate crimes across the country and here in Connecticut.”

“We’ve seen instances in various communities,” Tong said. “Swastikas being spray painted in Danbury, racial epithets being spray painted on garage doors in Stamford, and threats being called into Jewish community centers in Woodbridge, West Hartford, and mosques in Meriden, among others.”

Another one of the bill’s mandates is to create and publicize a hate crimes hotline and a text line for reporting incidents of harassment or intimidation of minority groups in the state.

Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Milford, said he hopes if the legislation is eventually passed that money raised by increasing penalties will goes toward helping to fund the hotline initiatives.

Smith noted that many bills are passed with the goal of funneling money back toward efforts to support programs implemented by legislation.

“We often collect money and throw it into the General Fund,” Smith noted.