Even as Indiana lawmakers from both parties continue to echo Gov. Eric Holcomb’s call for hate crime legislation, the deep divisions that foiled previous attempts to pass a bias-motivated crime bill appear to still be entrenched.
Monday, Holcomb announced his intention to get a hate crime bill through the Statehouse during the 2019 General Assembly session. He said he would be meeting with legislators, corporate leaders and citizens to find consensus so Indiana can join the 45 other states that have statutes regarding crimes motived by hate or bias.
“No law can stop evil,” Holcomb said, “but we should be clear that our state stands with the victims and their voices will not be silenced.”
Holcomb made his public statement of support for hate crime legislation following an act of vandalism at a Carmel synagogue over the weekend. An outbuilding at the Congregation Shaarey Tefilla was spray-painted with Nazi symbols.
Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature have since issued statements reiterating the governor's view. But Democrats noted that while they have proposed and supported hate crime measures, their colleagues across the aisle have resisted and failed to take action in getting a bill passed.
“(The Democrats) have persistently pursued bias-motivated crime legislation in the Indiana Senate, and each year our legislation is ignored by the majority party with promises of future consideration,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson.
Incoming Senate president Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said he is pleased to collaborate with Holcomb and the House of Representatives to continue the work of crafting “legislation that mirrors our Hoosier hospitality.”
Conversely, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, voiced support for the victims but was noncommittal about passing a law.
“This summer, the Interim Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code will take another look at the issue of bias-motivated crimes and identify opportunities for legislative consensus,” Bosma said. “Indiana Judges already have the ability to enhance sentences based on a criminal’s motivation when presented with evidence of bias, but perhaps more needs to be done to clarify and highlight this existing provision.”
Also Monday, Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill released a 761-word op-ed also calling for the Legislature to pass a law that “criminalizes hateful conduct.”
However, his position mirrors the opposition to hate crime bills that these measures carve out special protections for select groups. The list of protected classes often included in the proposed legislation is seen as excluding individuals who are part of a majority.
“My proposal differs from many other so-called hate-crimes proposals in that it avoids entirely the exercise of separating ‘protected groups’ from ‘non-protected,’” Hill wrote. “Why should some groups receive greater protection from hateful conduct than others?”
For community organizations pushing for a bias-motivated crime bill, the removal of the specific protected groups would be unacceptable. David Sklar, director of government affairs for the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, called it a non-starter.
Hate crime bills that have been introduced in the Indiana Legislature in the past have included a list of characteristics identifying the protected classes. The bills specify that individuals or groups could have their sentences enhanced if they commit a criminal act that targets others because of their religion, race, gender and ethnicity.
During the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions, the hate crime measure that gained the most traction was authored Sen. Susan Glick, R-LaGrange, and included gender identity and sexual orientation in the list of characteristics. She repeatedly said the list encompassed everyone because all have traits of sexual orientation and race.
Her argument did not convince all her Republican colleagues.
In 2017, Glick pulled her bill from the Senate floor primarily because of an amendment offered by Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel. His proposal would have stripped the provision identifying the protected classes. Similarly in 2018, the bill was tabled before the committee vote because of the suspect classifications. Glick singled out language proposed by Hill as being particular lethal because, she said, it stripped the bill and inserted enhancement provisions.
Sklar reiterated Monday that protected classes must be part of any hate crime bill for the final statute to be effective. He pointed to Utah’s hate crime law that is seen as useless because it does not include a set of protected classes. Also, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the Peach State’s hate crime law as “unconstitutionally vague.” That statute likewise did not identify groups for protection and was considered too board and potentially applying to every possible prejudice.
Hill opposed Glick’s 2018 hate crime bill. At the bill’s hearing before the Corrections and Criminal Law Committee in 2018, Parvonay Stover, the legislative affairs director for the Attorney General’s office, said the state’s top lawyer had concerns about the proposed bias-motivated crime bill.
“We feel it is unnecessary and largely symbolic legislation that doesn’t actually serve as a crime deterrent,” Stover told the committee.
Sklar agreed that having a hate crime law will not stop violence or intimidation against specific groups. However, he said such a law will help law enforcement know how to respond by being able to identify possible hate-motivated crimes and do a more thorough investigation as a result.
In his op-ed, Hill issued a caution to the Legislature but said he wants to help pass a hate crime law.
“The Indiana General Assembly undoubted will be inundated with calls to pass ‘hate crime’ legislation, but let’s hope they avoid passing ‘token’ legislation that is unenforceable or carries little enforcement weight,” he wrote. “I stand willing to work with the General Assembly to pass hate crimes legislation that works and can be supported by all.”
Hill made much the same offer to help in the last legislative session. Testifying before the senate committee, Stover said Hill was willing to meet with legislators and stakeholders.
“(The Attorney General is) committed to working on legislation that actually addresses the manifestation of hate,” Stover testified. “That is the specific actions that constitute criminal conduct like intimidation or threats or terrorism or whatever the case may be, not the emotion of hate itself and the motivation for committing that criminal act.”