Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE - Hate crimes rose dramatically in Tennessee last year, particularly those against the disabled, according to a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation report released Thursday.
The total number of hate crimes rose nearly 38 percent, jumping from 372 offenses in 2007 to 515 last year.
Crimes against the disabled were up by 88 percent, with 42 total offenses last year. Those against the mentally disabled showed a 94 percent rise, with 36 incidents.
Ethnic hate offenses was the only category to show a decrease in numbers, slipping from 52 in 2007 to 34 last year.
The report also noted that of the 515 hate crimes reported in 2008, a large proportion was in the category of unknown bias. That category signifies a crime that has the traits of a hate crime but an investigation has not determined a specific bias motivation category. Reported offenses with unknown bias increased from 76 to 178.
Most of last year's hate crimes against the disabled were thefts, assaults and burglaries victimizing mentally disabled persons.
Experts say the rise in crimes against the disabled can be attributed to the poor economy, with criminals exploiting a vulnerable group for money.
"When people are feeling desperate and pressured in times like these ... you're going to try to find the most vulnerable person to victimize," said Carol Westlake, executive director of the Tennessee Disability Coalition.
That group lobbies state lawmakers on behalf of people with disabilities.
Westlake also points to the more than 700 current state employees who would lose their jobs as part of $241 million in budget cuts proposed by Gov. Phil Bredesen this week. The proposal would also eliminate another 656 vacant jobs.
The agencies hardest hit by the proposed layoffs would be the Mental Retardation Services Division and the Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, with a combined 552 existing positions to be eliminated.
"I think we sort of overall are seeing, particularly in Tennessee, a little bit of a general backlash against people with disabilities," Westlake said. "I think that has to do with state budget crisis and money being tight everywhere.
"There's this underlying message that too often people with disabilities aren't as valued because there's a perception they're not contributing to society and the economics of the state," making victimization easier, she said.
According to the TBI report, racial bias accounted for the largest percentage of total hate crimes against a particular group in Tennessee with 30.7 percent in 2008 - 158 incidents. Hate crimes targeting blacks accounted for the largest number of offenses against a group, with 112 incidents.
Sexual bias crimes had the second largest percentage of total hate crimes with 11.8 percent last year, which accounted for 61 offenses.
One of the more notorious hate crimes in Tennessee last year involved two Middle Tennessee men, who pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes for their role in firebombing a mosque in Columbia.
Jonathan Edward Stone and Michael Corey Golden both pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of destruction of religious property and one count of use of fire to damage religious property.
Stone was 19 and Golden was 23 when they were arrested after the Feb. 9, 2008, attack on the Islamic Center of Columbia. The firebombing burned down the small mosque in a storefront and no one was hurt.