Attorney General Jeff Sessions is vowing to aggressively enforce federal hate crime laws, countering concerns among civil rights groups and some of his former Senate colleagues that he might put such prosecutions on the back burner.
“I know the responsibility that we have and we have a responsibility to protect people’s freedom, their religious rights, their integrity, their ability to express themselves, to push back against violence and hate crimes that occur in our country,” Sessions told federal prosecutors gathered for a Justice Department hate crimes summit in Washington on Thursday. “So, we’re going to do that, I will assure you, in every way.”
In his remarks, Sessions went out of his way to vow vigilant pursuit of violence against transgender victims.
“We have and will continue to enforce hate crime laws aggressively and appropriately where transgendered individuals are victims,” the attorney general said.
Sessions noted approvingly of the sentencing last month of a Mississippi man to 49 years in prison for the murder of a transgender woman (a case filed during the Obama administration) — the first federal hate crimes prosecution involving the targeting of a transgender victim.
Sessions also said he’d reached out to make sure the Justice Department is making every effort to assist in the investigations into a string of transgender killings in recent months.
“I personally met with the department’s senior leadership and the civil rights division to discuss a spate of murders — a number of murders around the country of transgendered individuals. A lot of concerns and questions were out there about how this was occurring and what we were doing about it,” Sessions said. “I specifically directed the files of these cases be reviewed to ensure there was not — no single person or group behind these attacks, these murders, or to what extent hate crime motivation in general may have been behind these attacks.”
As a senator, Sessions voted against the 2010 law that expanded federal hate crimes protections to sexual orientation. He said at the time that there was insufficient evidence that local prosecutors were failing to pursue such cases.
However, as the attorney general noted at the outset of his remarks Thursday, he pledged at his confirmation hearings to vigorously enforce that law despite his previous opposition.
Sessions also used his 11-minute speech to highlight other hate crimes cases, including prosecutions for arson against an Islamic center in Texas, a similar attack on a New York mosque and a murder in Kansas of an Indian man allegedly targeted because the shooter thought the victim was Iranian. (Sessions used the alternative term, Persian.)
Sessions and other speakers at the conference repeatedly linked the anti-hate crimes work to the Trump administration’s effort to crack down on violent crime more generally.
“Hate crimes are often precursors to violent crimes or are violent crimes,” the attorney general stressed. “I have directed all our federal prosecutors to make fighting violent crime a top priority — and you can be sure that this includes hate crimes. We will demand and expect results.”