At­tacks on dis­abled are crimes of hate

The Southern Berks News - - OPINION -

The out­rage and dis­gust that fol­lowed the May 10 “sucker punch” of a dis­abled man out­side a 7-Eleven in West Ch­ester was ex­pressed not only lo­cally and re­gion­ally, but across the na­tion.

The at­tack cap­tured on video was shared from coast to coast by me­dia out­lets and in­di­vid­u­als on so­cial me­dia, putting West Ch­ester in the spot­light for all the wrong rea­sons.

The sus­pect in the at­tack, Barry Robert Baker Jr., 29, of Greenville, Del., was later ap­pre­hended and faces charges of sim­ple as­sault and sum­mary ha­rass­ment and dis­or­derly con­duct. He is cur­rently be­ing held on $100,000 bail in Ch­ester County Prison.

That’s where the tale takes another turn. If found guilty, the most prison time Baker can be sen­tenced to un­der cur­rent state law is two years. Con­trast that to the law that calls for a sen­tence of up to five years for as­sault­ing a sports of­fi­cial.

Two area leg­is­la­tors are try­ing to cor­rect that dis­par­ity and strengthen Penn­syl­va­nia laws with tougher penal­ties for “hate crimes against peo­ple with men­tal or phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties.” Se­nate Bill 749 by state Sen. Thomas Kil­lion, R-9, and House Bill 1528 by state Rep. Becky Corbin, R-155, would make the as­sault of a per­son with a rec­og­nized dis­abil­ity a part of the state’s hate crime statute, just like an at­tack on some­one be­cause of their race or re­li­gion.

The bill was in­tro­duced re­cently at a press con­fer­ence where Ch­ester County Dis­trict At­tor­ney Tom Ho­gan showed not only the video of the West Ch­ester 7-Eleven at­tack, but also an as­sault on a men­tally dis­abled man in the Ger­man­town sec­tion of Philadel­phia by a group of teenagers on Me­mo­rial Day.

“How do you feel when you see those videos?” Ho­gan asked those as­sem­bled at the press con­fer­ence. “When I see a bully at­tack­ing a per­son with men­tal or phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties I’d like to reach out and throt­tle that crim­i­nal my­self. But I can’t. I’m a dis­trict at­tor­ney.”

In­stead, he said au­thor­i­ties need to turn to the Leg­is­la­ture to give them tools to ef­fec­tively pros­e­cute such crimes.

The “two re­cent at­tacks against dis­abled in­di­vid­u­als were ap­palling and re­pug­nant crimes against the vic­tims and so­ci­ety as a whole,” said Kil­lion. “We are bet­ter than that and we can­not al­low such de­plorable con­duct to be tol­er­ated.”

Corbin added, “We need to cel­e­brate our dif­fer­ences and stop dis­crim­i­na­tion and bul­ly­ing of those who are not iden­ti­cal to us. … Those who tar­get peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties should face the full force of the law.”

The new leg­is­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to Ho­gan, will al­low pros­e­cu­tors to en­hance the grad­ing of spe­cific crimes of vi­o­lence that are com­mit­ted against those with phys­i­cal and men­tal dis­abil­i­ties. For ex­am­ple, a sim­ple as­sault con­vic­tion, in­stead of car­ry­ing a one- to two-year sen­tence, would in­crease to 2½ to five years. A sec­ond-de­gree felony as­sault would be in­creased to a first-de­gree felony.

In to­day’s world, with phones in ev­ery by­stander’s hands, videos are in­creas­ingly used to cap­ture crimes and hor­ren­dous ac­tions. As dis­con­cert­ing as those im­ages may be, they serve to help iden­tify per­pe­tra­tors and aid law en­force­ment.

They also por­tray to a wide au­di­ence the hor­ror and sheer cru­elty of these vi­o­lence acts against in­no­cent and de­fense­less hu­man be­ings. The no­tion that a crime like this reck­less as­sault on a dis­abled in­di­vid­ual carries a rel­a­tively light pun­ish­ment un­der state law is un­con­scionable.

We com­mend Kil­lion and Corbin for seek­ing to ad­dress the dis­par­ity.

The video of that May 10 at­tack de­mands not only our out­rage, but our action to pre­vent such crimes. At­tacks on men­tally or phys­i­cally chal­lenged peo­ple are hate crimes, and the penal­ties should match.

We urge leg­is­la­tors to quickly pass Se­nate Bill 749 and Gov. Tom Wolf to sign it.

The two re­cent at­tacks against dis­abled in­di­vid­u­als were ap­palling and re­pug­nant crimes against the vic­tims and so­ci­ety as a whole.

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