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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Trying out the side door

by John Brummett | April 6, 2021 at 3:01 a.m.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and his big-business allies who agree with him that Arkansas needs a hate-crimes law couldn't hope to pass one straight-up in this mean-spirited Legislature.

So, they're coming in sideways. They've designed something clever that doesn't call itself a hate-crimes bill or read like one or specify any particular kind of victim.

But it might actually do everything a real hate-crimes bill would do, which is permit adding time to sentences for crimes committed from hate of groups. But it's offensive to have to take out specific references to LGBTQ victims to achieve passage, which seems possible in the Senate, at least.

The worry now, according to two people close to the situation, is that the Legislature will pass the bill with Republican votes only.

Here's why that's a worry: The main motivation of the governor and the business advocates is to make Arkansas the 48th state to have a hate-crimes law. More to the point, it is to avoid the unflattering implications--and the dangers of lost business from appearing backward--of being one of three states without one.

It might well backfire on Arkansas' already-damaged image to get national attention for enacting a vaguely worded finesse of a hate-crimes law that got votes only from the same Republicans who had killed the real one--and none from liberal Democrats who called the whole thing a sad and shameful sham that presumed to take a stand against hate while in fact reflecting hate in rejecting directly stated protections for gays, lesbians and transgender persons.

For that matter, the Black Caucus is said to be irreversibly offended that race references got put on the cutting-room floor as well.

For once, at long last, legislative Democrats have some power. The governor and business lobbyists have been pleading with them to read the bill with an open mind and consider that it would get done what they wanted.

Democrats are wary on that very point. Why can't the bill just say so?

It might appeal to a few Democrats to emphasize that the Arkansas Family Council, the right-wing "Christian" lobbying group, says this new bill is as sinful as the first, presuming to punish thought just as the original did.

Meantime, on the left, the Anti- Defamation League says the bill is a despicable charade that puts a coat of cheap wax on hate.

The original bill got boxed in at the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the Senate's most extreme right-wingers packed themselves to block it and pass guns- galore bills.

Now sources say this finesse bill likely will be allowed out of the committee for a vote on the Senate floor. Sources make the point that right-wing senators didn't have to compromise at all.

Some liberals counter that they didn't actually compromise at all.

But it appears that they did.

The original bill permitted prosecutors to seek add-on penalties after convicting a person of a crime if they could make the case that the person committed the crime because of hate for what that victim was in terms of race, ethnicity, country of origin, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, all of which were specified.

That specificity was the right wing's problem.

More benignly, they professed not to understand why any of the named groups would want special considerations rather than the simply equal ones they'd long sought.

But it's not a special right for a beaten-up transgender person if the assailant gets a little extra time in prison. It's an official and special disdain for blind hate of people because of how they look or who they are.

More malignantly, the right wing didn't want any new wording in law that might indicate state condoning of homosexuals and transgender persons, whom extreme conservatives either consider vile sinners or actually hate.

The new bill simply provides that, if a court determined that an aggravated crime was based on the victim being a member of a group, any group, then the court could order that the convicted person could not be let out of prison until serving 80 percent of his sentence.

The governor and business groups have lawyers who tell them the broad wording would apply to an assailant of gays, lesbians or transgender persons. And lawyers say that forbidding prison release during 80 percent of the sentence amounts to an enhanced penalty.

Is a hate-crimes bill by any other name--that doesn't mention hate or identify victim groups or specifically add sentencing time--still a hate-crimes bill?

Is the offense one takes at the side-door entrance of this bill reason enough to vote against the good it might do?

Can the governor and the big business lobbyists persuade a few of the otherwise inconsequential Democratic caucus to give them a vote and thus a glimmer of national credibility?

Is this a mildly positive development for an otherwise horrid legislative session, or just more of the same?

The heck of it is that it somehow is both.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.


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