Advocates of hate crime statute still pushing Legislature to act

With a little more than a month remaining in the 2017 Indiana General Assembly session, advocates are ramping up their efforts to get hate crime legislation through the Statehouse this year.

A coalition of religious and minority groups is continuing to talk to Indiana legislators about the need for such a law. The coalition leaders also are encouraging members of their respective communities to call and email their legislators to support a bias crime statute.    

Representatives of that coalition held a press conference Wednesday at the Statehouse to outline the need for legislation that would address bias-motivated crimes. Standing on stage behind the speakers were coalition members from the Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Christian faiths as well as from the Latino, African-American and LGBTQ communities.

“Our proposed legislation this year will protect all Hoosiers,” said David Sklar, government affairs director for the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council. “It will give prosecutors and judges the tools they need to fully address when bias motivation is behind a crime, and it will give communities consistency in how bias motivation is addressed by our legal system in Indiana.”

The JCRC has been spearheading the push that began last year to get a bias crime bill through the Legislature. Supporters note Indiana is one of only five states in the country that does not have such a law.

“We are not pushing an agenda or creating some sort of social experiment,” Sklar said. “There’s simply no reason our legislators need to be concerned about the impact of this legislation or deviate from what is working in other states.”

A bill co-authored by Sen. Sue Glick and now retired Sen. Earline Rogers passed the Senate in 2016 but did not get a committee hearing in the House. The measure would have made bias an aggravating factor in crimes committed with the intent to harm based on the victim’s characteristics such as race, religion, and sexual orientation.

Glick, R-LaGrange, introduced the same bill in the current session. However she pulled it off the Senate floor in late February after a proposed amendment split the Republican caucus and diminished support.

Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry speaking at the press conference wondered why Indiana is among the very few states without a hate crime law. He emphasized a crime targeting an individual on the basis of a particular trait like ethnicity or gender is really meant to send a threatening message to that entire community. Consequently, the state should be able to respond with an equally strong message that such crimes a reprehensible.

Curry also dismissed the common counter argument that bias crime statutes create a special class of victims.

“We all have a sexual orientation; we all have a gender; we all have a religion, even if that is a non-religion,” he said. “So…those who would focus on the fact that it is supposedly limiting those who would be protected (are) just not accurate. It would protect everyone.”

The coalition plans to try to revive hate crime language by identifying bills that are still alive which could be amended either in committee or on second reading.  

Rep. Greg Porter introduced a bias-motivated crime bill in the House this session but it died in Committee on Courts and Criminal Code. The Indianapolis Democrat is optimistic about getting legislation through before adjournment sine die on April 21.  

Porter believes more legislators than expected would vote in support of a hate crime bill. He said individuals who are “just cemented in … their thought processes” are hindering the progress of bias crime measures in the Statehouse.

“That’s what some legislators do when they can’t do anything good; they’ll continue to do something in a negative way,” Porter said. “I’m not angry, I’m just extremely frustrated … .”

Glick’s bill was derailed by an amendment from Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, which removed the language specifically identifying the characteristics that would be protected by the hate crime statute. Sklar said the amendment created division and the legislators did not have an appetite for another fight since they already are trying to tackle road funding and educational testing, among other heavy issues.

Curry agreed if a bill would get before both the full Senate and House, it would pass. Still he was doubtful legislators would get an opportunity to vote.

“I’m not overly optimistic that we will accomplish anything,” Curry said about the possibility of getting a hate crime bill revived this session. “We’re hopeful that it will be given some consideration. If that doesn’t happen then we’ll be back here in 2018.”

The additional push in favor of enacting a hate crime bill comes as anti-Semitism and xenophobia are on the rise. The Jewish Community Center in Indianapolis has received two bomb threats and a synagogue in Evansville was hit by gunfire.

Kanwal Prakash Singh spoke at the press conference as a representative of the Sikh community. He said although he has lived in Indiana for 50 years, he is still harassed and threatened because his beard and turban lead some to believe he is part of ISIS or Al-Qaeda.

“I don’t believe that in God’s kingdom, and especially in this great land, there should be any room for any hate crime against anyone,” Singh said.

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