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BRENDA BLAGG: Is this a hate crime bill?

Lawmakers weigh less-specific ‘class protection’ bill by Brenda Blagg | April 7, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Arkansas may be on track to enact a law that neither acknowledges it is aimed at perpetrators of hate crimes nor lists the classes at which such crimes are usually targeted.

The proposed legislation, which doesn't even mention "hate," has been labeled by opponents as a "sham."

Nevertheless, Senate President Pro-Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, filed the bill last week.

Hickey calls it "a class-protection bill." And Shepherd asserts that the bill will cover more protected groups because of its admittedly broad language.

Whatever it is, Senate Bill 622 cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday and is already on the Senate calendar.

It has been endorsed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and some major businesses.

Such strong backing of this alternative legislation is a sure sign that a hate crimes bill filed by Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Sulphur Springs, is hopelessly stalled.

Hendren, who is the past president pro tempore of the Senate and the governor's nephew, pre-filed his Senate Bill 3. Once the session started, it was referred to Senate Judiciary, where it has been stuck since Jan. 11.

That bill calls for sentence enhancements for offenses committed against a person due to the victim's "race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, homelessness, gender identity, sexual orientation, sex, disability or service in United States Armed Forces."

Enhanced sentences could mean 20 percent longer imprisonment, 20 percent higher fines and 20 percent longer probation or suspended sentence.

Gov. Hutchinson had listed hate crimes legislation among his legislative goals this year, noting that Arkansas is one of just three states without stiffer penalties for hate crimes, along with South Carolina and Wyoming.

The governor told reporters last week that Hendren's original bill was probably stronger but the alternative "accomplishes a great deal in terms of protecting any group that might be targeted because of who they are."

Whether SB622 would get Arkansas off the short list of states without tougher laws against hate crimes is in question.

This state doesn't need to be seen as a holdout, a place less interested than other states in protecting victims of hate crimes. That's especially true in the present environment when victims are being targeted, even killed, for their ethnicity or some other difference from their attackers.

Hate crime legislation is about protecting Arkansans and those who may come here, but any such legislation has been an elusive goal for nearly 20 years.

SB622, described as an effort for consensus by Speaker Shepherd, would delay certain offenders' parole eligibility, blocking release from prison until the offender has served at least 80 percent of his or her sentence.

Those offenders subject to delayed release, if convicted, must have committed a serious felony involving violence "under an aggravating circumstance."

SB622 defines an "aggravating circumstance" to mean that a defendant purposely selected the victim "because the victim was a member of or was associated with a recognizable and identifiable group or class who share mental, physical, biological, cultural, political or religious beliefs or characteristics."

There's no wonder why critics describe SB622 as vague and expect the broad language will lead to legal challenge, if it goes into law.

Nor is it surprising that Gov. Hutchinson acknowledged that "this is not the bill that I had envisioned at the beginning of the session."

He nonetheless said it is "a significant step forward in giving assurance that we are a state that values the diversity of our country."

The governor, the state chamber and those businesses that have signed on to support SB622 are naturally worried that Arkansas, a state without a hate crime bill, doesn't look all that good to prospective developers or to diverse families thinking about relocating here.

Unfortunately, it may be a little late to alter the image wrecking already done by this Legislature's conservative majority.

Keep in mind lawmakers have already passed (and the governor has signed) other controversial bills that impact this state's reputation.

To his credit, the governor this week vetoed House Bill 1570, which would ban gender-affirming care for minors, taking decisions about such care away from parents, patients and doctors.

The Legislature, which passed the bill by large margins in both chambers, overrode Hutchinson's veto even as the governor urged them not to.


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