Rep. David Litvack is taking a new tack on hate crimes in Utah. In the upcoming session of the state Legislature, the Salt Lake Democrat will sponsor legislation that would enable judges and the Board of Pardons and Parole to consider whether the offender's actions included specific aggravating factors that pose harm to the community.

In other words, prosecutors would have the tools to seek the harshest punishment for offenders under Utah's indeterminate sentencing scheme. The nature of a hate crime is that it is intended to send a message far beyond the crime itself. The torching of a Pakistani restaurant in Utah shortly after 9/11, for example, was not meant as a simple act of vandalism. It was a message to all people of Middle Eastern descent.

Under Litvack's bill, if an offense was particularly egregious, a judge could recommend to the state Board of Pardons and Parole that the offender receive the maximum sentence allowed for that particular offense. Judges and parole board members routinely consider aggravating and mitigating factors in handing down sentences and determining an inmate's length of incarceration. This would be one more tool.

Litvack's proposal is a departure from previous bills, which would have enhanced penalties by one degree for crimes committed because of bias or prejudice against protected groups categorized by color, disability, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, age and gender.

We still prefer that approach. It is constitutionally defensible and it would mete out harsher punishments against people who harm individuals or their property in a way designed to intimidate people of like characteristics.

But that legislation has repeatedly failed because some lawmakers have balked at including "sexual orientation" as a protected group. Others have maintained simplistically that "a crime is a crime," or that victims who aren't in a protected category would not get equal protection. In many cases, these lawmakers ignore other laws on the books that already add enhancements depending on the criminal's intent.

This time, Litvack's bill does not specify groups, which should help focus the debate on the central need to establish an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes.

This proposal doesn't go as far as we would like, but considering political realities, it is a move in the right direction. Litvack is to be commended for his perseverance. Utah legislators need to take the next step and approve this proposal.