Attacks on disabled are crimes of hate
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.