The top federal law enforcement official in Massachusetts highlighted efforts to enforce civil rights laws during a speech in Springfield on Friday. The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, was the keynote speaker at a conference marking the 45th anniversary of the passage of the Federal Fair Housing Act.
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said the number of civil rights enforcement cases handled by her office tripled after she assigned a team of prosecutors in 2010 to focus on such things as hate crimes, human trafficking, and discrimination. It is the first time the prosecutor’s office has had a team devoted exclusively to civil rights.
Ortiz did not disclose the number of cases the team is working on. She said victims of hate crimes often don’t come forward. So, prosecutors assigned to the civil rights team have been doing community outreach to cultivate trust.
She said dialogue with community groups in western Massachusetts is just opening up. She urged people attending the civil rights conference to view the federal prosecutor’s office as a resource.
The Fair Housing and Civil Rights Conference was attended by more than 300 people including civil rights advocates, housing specialists, and officials from more than a dozen federal, state and local agencies.
Ortiz, in her address, noted that one of the more notorious hate crimes in recent years occurred right in Springfield. It was the burning of a predominately black church motivated by the election of Barack Obama as the country’s first African-American president. Three white men were convicted and sentenced to federal prison terms. Ortiz said people are more likely to be victims of hate crimes now because of ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual orientation.
She said her office is on the lookout for cases that involve returning war veterans facing discrimination in employment.
Also, at the conference, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a partnership with the University of Massachusetts School of Law. HUD General Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Bryan Greene explained the partnership is part of a national campaign to train a new generation of civil rights lawyers.
UMass Law School Dean Mary Lu Bilek said the relationship with HUD fits the mission of the public law school to graduate practice-ready, justice-centered lawyers.
The partnership will afford internship opportunities for the law students.