Maryland State Police have classified anti-immigration graffiti spray-painted July 13, 2014, on the former Army Reserve Center in Westminster, Md., as a hate crime.
Maryland State Police have classified anti-immigration graffiti spray-painted July 13, 2014, on the former Army Reserve Center in Westminster, Md., as a hate crime. (Christian Alexandersen / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Amid increasing reports of anti-Semitic and racist incidents in Maryland, state lawmakers on Tuesday heard from witnesses who support proposed legislation to expand the definition of hate crime laws to apply to attempts and threats to commit such acts.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, proposed the legislation in response to a recent surge in hate crimes — including several bomb threats sent to Jewish schools across Maryland that caused panic and forced evacuations.

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Similar to the rest of the nation, Maryland has seen an increase in reported hate crimes and incidents since the 2016 presidential campaign. Police in Maryland reported 693 hate crimes and incidents in 2016 and 2017, nearly double the number from the previous two years. Hate crimes are misdemeanors such as assault or vandalism that were committed based on race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, disability, national origin, or homelessness.

As incidents have mounted, Rosenberg said he and other lawmakers “became aware that the hate crime law would not cover a threat.”

The proposed legislation calls for imposing a punishment of up to three years and a maximum $5,000 fine for threatening or attempting to commit a hate crime. It proposed to increase the punishment for committing a hate crime to up to five years and a $10,000 penalty. Penalties are more severe when hate crimes are committed during a felony.

Sarah Mersky, deputy director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that she was among those evacuated in early January 2017 from the Jewish Community Services Center Building when it received a bomb threat.

Hate in Maryland: From racist taunts to swastikas to a campus stabbing, bias reports up sharply in state

Maryland law enforcement agencies received 398 reports of hate or bias last year, an increase of 35 percent from 2016 — and a pace of more than one report a day. The state’s experience echoes a national increase in reported hate crimes, reversing a long, gradual decline.

“I saw babies being taken out of the Jewish Community Center in cribs, toddlers holding hands walking across the parking lot, staff and clients walking out who had received treatment for previous times in their lives,” Mersky said.

She said the center received another bomb threat two months later on March 14, 2017, with a subject line “Tomorrow’s bloodbath.” The email stated: “I’ve planted a pipe bomb hidden at your JCC that is going to detonate at a busy hour of the day after the 9 a.m. late opening. I will detonate it at the right time and then I will shoot everyone of you.”

The email went on to describe how the person would kill the “non-human Jewish children first.”

Merksy said the bomb threats and Ku Klux Klan fliers distributed in her Locust Point neighborhood have been unsettling.

“I felt like such a target — something I’ve never felt like in my own home or office,” she said.

Jo Saint-George, political action chair for the NAACP’s Maryland State Conference, testified she’s heard from several of the civil rights group’s members about being threatened.

“One of the members was walking a dog in Bethesda and was told to get out of this neighborhood and then was hit by the individual,” she told lawmakers.

The language in the bill, which would take effect Oct. 1 if passed, states that its provisions do not violate the protected free speech.

“Nothing in the hate crimes statutes may be construed to infringe on the speech of a religious leader or other individual during peaceable activity intended to express the leader’s or individual’s religious beliefs or convictions,” the draft bill states.

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