To combat hate crime, ‘let us say and do more’

On Sunday, Jan. 5, tens of thousands of people crowded Lower Manhattan in a show of solidarity against anti-Semitism, intolerance and violence.

By the early afternoon, the Brooklyn Bridge was packed shoulder to shoulder with demonstrators who stood together in unity with the Jewish community.

These violent attacks, from Jersey City to Monsey and beyond, have shaken the Jewish community in New Jersey and around the nation. However, as the rate of bias crimes continues to rise, so does the size of the crowds responding, calling out for more inclusivity and respect. Our voices are only getting louder. 

But with 569 bias incidents reported in 2018 in New Jersey alone, speaking out cannot be the only solution. Amidst the omnipresent rise in hate crime, we need to not only say more, but do more. We need to show the world that this is not who we are, but more than anything, we need to take action.

As we stand at the crossroads of a nationwide rise in bias crime interwoven with issues of mental health, gun control and public safety, we must work to understand the complexity of these issues if we want to find real solutions.

So often, following incidents of mass violence, the national conversation quickly turns to mental health. In some cases, as was reported with the most recent attack in Monsey, assailants very well may be struggling with mental illness. However, it should be noted that an overwhelming majority of those who struggle with mental illness almost never show an increased risk of violence.

In fact, individuals with serious mental illness are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the aggressor. While mental illness is a critical issue to be addressed, it cannot carry the entire weight of our nation’s hate crime dilemma. Nonetheless, when serious mental illness goes untreated, the risk of violence can increase.

We need to see an increase in the State’s investment in resources and education. Failure to treat those who are at risk for committing these crimes is not acceptable.

In the wake of several high-profile attacks, additional interventions are still needed in New Jersey. I believe that we must examine how we respond to those who are at-risk for committing violent, hateful acts. Our response must incorporate more comprehensive mental health evaluation tactics to identify and treat susceptible individuals. Currently, I am working on legislation to address the intersection of hate crime and mental illness.

However, as we aspire to improve our ability to identify and treat at-risk individuals, we must center our work with the notion that most people struggling with mental illness never pose a security risk to others. No doubt, the safety and security of the public is of critical importance, but we cannot create barriers to mental health care in the process.

In addition to an upcoming legislative proposal on the intersections of mental illness and hate crime, I am also the sponsor of legislation (A5414) that would establish a state-wide educational program on inclusivity and respect for defendants convicted of bias crimes. This legislation also expands the state’s current bias intimidation statute, including crimes of a false alarm and cyber harassment.

While we cannot legislate morality, we legislators can utilize public policy to help shape and change our culture. Education is one of the most powerful tools in the face of ignorance and injustice; I believe that it is one resource we have failed to fully utilize in the face of these tragedies.

There is no doubt that the passage of these bills would not only make a difference in the safety of our state, but that it would also provide support and comfort to those who have been most impacted by these crimes.