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Michigan AG Dana Nessel: Democratic hate crime bills not tough enough

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on a table
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is calling for further work on House and Senate packages aimed at prosecuting hate crimes in the state, saying current efforts are “woefully inadequate.” (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Democrats are attempting to update the Michigan’s hate crime laws but are at odds overly how harshly to punish offenders
  • Attorney General Dana Nessel says neither House nor Senate efforts go far enough and wants even stricter penalties
  • Michigan saw more than 400 hate crime incidents in 2022, the bulk of which were racially motivated

LANSING — When it comes to Michigan’s current hate crime laws, Attorney General Dana Nessel has two words: woefully inadequate.

“We need enhanced hate crime protections … We need more significant penalties,” Nessel told Bridge Michigan in a recent interview. “There’s no question about it.”

The issue is growing personal for Nessel, a second-term Democrat, who's been subject to anti-Semitic attacks during her time in office. But policy changes she's advocated for have so far failed to pass the Democratic-led Legislature amid a divide over appropriate penalties. 

Michigan police reported 422 hate crime incidents in 2022, according to the most recent data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. More than two-thirds of those crimes were racially motivated, with just over 76% being crimes against a person, as opposed to property or society.


Hate crimes regarding sexual orientation and gender identity also experienced a slight year-over-year uptick, with authorities reporting 68 sexual orientation-related hate crimes in 2022, up from 60 in 2021. There were 14 gender identity-related hate crimes, up from 13 the prior year.


More recently, the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism released its annual assessment which ranked Michigan eighth in the nation for white supremacist propaganda and events in 2023.

With those numbers rising, Nessel told Bridge she thinks changes to the state’s current statute — which does not include specific penalties for hate crimes committed on the basis of sexuality, age or disability — is long overdue.

And that’s a sentiment borne from personal experience. In August 2022, 39-year-old Milan resident Brandon Roy called Nessel on her personal cell phone, leaving a voicemail wherein he told her, among other things, to “go back to f—--- Israel so you can get nuclear blasted out of the f—--- sky.”

He was sentenced to two days in jail, eight days of community service and a year of probation for the threats, according to The Ann Arbor News. He violated terms of his probation late last year by keeping guns in his home, but he has since been released from jail and back on probation.

Republicans have mostly opposed recent efforts to strengthen Michigan’s hate crimes laws, and Democrats have disagreed on how severe to make penalties, creating tricky political dynamics in Lansing, Nessel acknowledged. 

“You have this confluence of forces on the far right … this insistence that the First Amendment protects this language, or that the Second Amendment protects the ability to possess firearms under almost any and all circumstances,” Nessel said.

“But then you also have the far left that argues basically no one should go to jail or prison for any offense ever and also, for anyone who has mental health issues… we don't want to incarcerate people, unless or until they've actually committed a murder.”

An update to state law

With Democratic majorities now helming both the state House and Senate, lawmakers have begun work to expand Michigan’s hate crime laws and associated punishments. 


Both chambers have passed legislation that would prohibit intimidating, threatening or otherwise harassing a person due to their actual or perceived gender identity or expression, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation or age, among other things. Both build on current law, which only protects people from harassment or intimidation based on race, skin color, religion, gender or national origin.

But their plans differ on how severely to come down on offenders.

Under the latest House package, a first offense for committing a hate crime would be a felony punishable by up to two years in prison, a maximum fine of $2,000 or both. A second offense would double the potential prison time and increase the possible maximum fine to $5,000. 

Using a gun or “other dangerous weapon” while committing a hate crime would up the potential incarceration time to six years and the possible maximum fine to $7,500, or both.

That legislation is currently awaiting a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, where Republican Vice Chair Graham Filler of Duplain Township declined to discuss the recently introduced bills. 

Most Republicans opposed an earlier version of the hate crimes legislation, which was approved by the full House last summer. However, it stalled in the Senate after right-leaning news outlets falsely reported the bills would make it a crime to use the wrong pronouns when describing a person’s gender.

Some Republicans also argued the initial House hate crimes package would infringe on First Amendment rights. 

“This legislation allows police or prosecutors to decide what is a crime after the fact, or after the speech is spoken,” Rep. Gina Johnsen, R-Lake Odessa, said in June. “Content-based speech regulation violates the U.S. Constitution, which everyone in this chamber swore to uphold.”

Republicans and Democrats did manage to find common ground on companion legislation that toughened penalties for "institutional desecration" of a religious facility, school, library or museum. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed that legislation into law last year. 

The Michigan Senate revived the larger hate crimes debate last month, approving a separate package that would impose smaller fees than the House had proposed and do more to differentiate between a credible threat and actual acts of violence. 

Under the Senate plan, a first-time threat would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to 1 year in prison and up to $1,000 fine. A first act of violence — which would include stalking and defacing a person’s property — would be a felony punishable by up to two years in prison and a maximum $2,000 fine.

Nessel, though, said she is not impressed. The attorney general told Bridge it is hard for her to get “100% on board” with either the House or Senate package because she doesn’t think either go far enough. 

She joked: “Two years is nothing … Why not just give them a parking ticket?”

What’s next?

While Republicans uniformly opposed the Senate package, sponsoring Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, said she proposed lower penalties than the House in an attempt to build consensus among colleagues. 

Santana said she understands Nessel’s position, noting she too has personally received voicemails of a racial and threatening nature. But she said she thinks the attorney general is thinking like a prosecutor.

As a lawmaker, Santana said she believed the Senate plan “meets the expectations of what prosecutors can push in actually prosecuting people.” 

“As people are prosecuted for these offenses, we can see how that shakes out,” Santana said, “but I think that it’s a step in the right direction, currently, and I don’t think we need to go any further at this point.”

She’s not alone on that front. 

A fall analysis by the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan concluded there is “very little evidence to show” harsher penalties for committing hate crimes actually deters future crimes of a similar nature.

“The impact of hate-motivated acts on the victims and their communities is significant, but much of the policy response focuses on combating hate crimes via criminal deterrence,”  wrote Karley Abramson, a health policy research associate with the council. “This approach has only limited utility, and a broader effort to reduce hate-motivated acts with other tools is necessary.”

As the Legislature returns from a legislative spring break, the fate of the hate crimes legislation remains unknown. 


Rep. Noah Arbit, a West Bloomfield Democrat who sponsored the new and revised House plan, told Bridge Michigan he is confident his legislation will ultimately reach the governor’s desk for signature this year. Santana said she is not sure what will happen next. 

Nessel, however, is hoping to add teeth to whichever version might advance. 

Allowing a person to avoid or reduce jail time after a hate crime would create “an environment where people feel more enabled to make these types of threats,” she said, “because they know that there’s just zero accountability in the system.”

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