Editorial: A response to hate crime that goes beyond punishment

Sometimes, it's just a thin line that separates an act of vandalism from a hate crime. A law prompted by the efforts of a Naperville woman could clarify the distinction, and perhaps reduce occurrences of both.

The legislation, passed by the General Assembly and awaiting the promised signature of Gov. Bruce Rauner, amends Illinois' hate crime law in important ways, moving the process beyond simple punishment toward something more like progress.

Sadia Covert, an attorney and activist involved with the Islamic Center of Naperville, conceived of the new approach following a 2014 act of vandalism at the Etz Chaim synagogue in Lombard. Working with state Rep. Stefanie Kifowitz of Oswego and state Sen. Heather Steans of Chicago, Covert helped produce a bill that goes beyond merely enhancing the penalties against someone who commits a crime that involves bias.

The new law does have punitive components. It allows victims to seek damages in civil court and removes a $1,000 cap on restitution for hate crime victims. But more importantly, it includes requirements that get at the root causes of hate. It requires individuals convicted of a hate crime to enroll in an in-person course about the group their actions targeted.

"When people have more understanding, they're less likely to hate or commit a crime," Covert told our staff writer Marie Wilson.

As if to punctuate that theme, on Monday, the day we published Wilson's report, we learned that someone had spray painted a political slogan on the sidewalk outside a Jewish delicatessen in Naperville.

In staff writer Russell Lissau's story online and in print today, the deli owner calls the vandalism a hate crime, not merely a political statement about the conflict between Palestinians and Israel.

If the vandal or vandals are caught, it may be up to a court to decide whether spray painting a pro-Palestinian slogan outside a Jewish restaurant crosses the line from public nuisance to act of hate, but we're relatively certain of one thing. If the individuals were to spend time with some of the hundreds of Jewish and Gentile customers the deli has served in its 13 years in business, they might think twice about simplistic assumptions regarding opinions diverse individuals within a group may hold on a complex subject - and in so doing, have a better understanding of how their actions hurt rather than help efforts to find solutions.

We don't want to be naive in the belief that a short introduction on a cultural or ethnic group will automatically ignite a light bulb over a racist's head and instantly instill a new depth of sensitivity.

But sensitivity has to start somewhere, and education is certainly one good place.

Naperville attorney's stance against hate crimes set to become state law

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