Programs that teach tolerance and defuse racial tension in schools are the key to preventing racially explosive events like those in Jena, La., Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen testified during a congressional hearing today.
The House Judiciary Committee convened the hearing to explore the incidents at Jena High School and the federal government's role in prosecuting hate crimes. Cohen told the committee that federal authorities should prosecute serious hate crimes at schools when state and local authorities fail to take appropriate action. However, he cautioned lawmakers about relying exclusively on criminal charges.
"The criminal law is a blunt instrument, and too many of our young people are already being pushed out of our schools and into our prisons," he told the committee. "A far wiser course than increasing federal prosecutions would be increasing federal investment in services designed to soothe the racial and ethnic tensions simmering in our nation's schools and to respond promptly when hate crimes occur."
Cohen said Congress should consider increasing the size of the Justice Department's Community Relations Service, a program created more than 40 years ago to foster peaceful relations in communities where those relationships are threatened. He noted that as the country has grown more diverse, the service has actually shrunk in size.
He called on Congress to hold hearings about the collection of hate crime data and urged lawmakers to support the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2007. This legislation would require the collection of data about hate crimes committed by and against juveniles.
"The clearer our picture of the true dimensions of the hate crime problem, the better our strategies to combat it are likely to be," he said.
Cohen urged the federal government to expand programs that fund the activities of nonprofit organizations working to prevent hate crimes at schools. Although the SPLC is a nonprofit organization that provides free, anti-bias materials to schools, it does not seek or accept federal funding.
Cohen also noted that any hate crime training should raise the awareness of prosecutors about the impact their actions, particularly their use of prosecutorial discretion, can have on a community.
The events in Jena, La., highlight this need. Several black youths were initially charged as adults with attempted murder in the attack of a white student during a period of racial tension at the school.
"In an ideal world, justice would be blind," Cohen said. "But in the real world, it is not; prosecutors see race."
Cohen also spoke about the SPLC's efforts in hate crime prevention, such as Six Lessons from Jena, a guide for educators to prevent hate crime on campus. The plan has been shared with more than 50,000 educators across the country. Copies of the guide, which also details how to address a hate crime on campus, were provided to members of the committee.
"The federal government, working with experts in the field, can help officials like those in Jena work toward the goal of creating schools where all students feel physically and emotionally safe," Cohen said. "It is difficult to think of a better ending for the unfortunate events in Jena than a renewed federal effort toward this goal."