The Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon recommended passage of the compromise “hate” crime bill, which allows for the setting of a minimum sentence for conviction of a serious crime against an identifiable class of persons.
It passed on a voice vote with only one audible “no,” from Sen. Gary Stubblefield.
It also passed with a noticeable absence of support from defenders of minorities or any representatives of groups that most suffer from discrimination and crime motivated by that hatred.
The bill, SB 622, lists no specific classes. “Some people say it’s broad. I like to say it’s all-inclusive,” Hickey said.
Sen. Jim Hendren, who’d supported the original hate crime bill that has foundered because it named sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, asked Hickey why the change from a specific listing of protected classes.
“If everybody wants everybody listed, there is no end to it,” Hickey said.
Sen. Alan Clark asked a series of questions about specific crimes and whether they’d be covered, citing some famous killings — of a black man in Texas, a gay youth and at a church in South Carolina. Hickey said they would be.
Any group not covered? Sen. Gary Stubblefield asked. “I wouldn’t think so,” Hickey said. Hickey himself brought up neo-Nazis. Just because we don’t necessarily agree with someone, he said, “they don’t need to be targeted because of those characteristics.” A dairy farmer? Stubblefield asked. “I would think so, yes.”
Stubblefield asked whether there were already laws on the books covering the crimes in the bill. That’s true, Hickey said. And the bill also doesn’t enhance penalties. It only says a person convicted can be made to serve at least 80 percent of a sentence.
Hendren proposed an amendment. It would define aggravating circumstances as already stated in the law, including “without limitation” some of the traditional victims of hate crimes. ” We might say they are all covered, Hendren said, but this puts in black and white the assurance that if you are a victim of a crime because of national origin.
If the bill already does these things, this makes the bill stronger and makes it more clear, he said. And he said it would appeal to people who are traditionally victims of hate crimes. Each group is listed for a reason, because they are frequently victims, and they are listed in other states’ laws.
Sen. Blake Johnson asked whether the groups Hendren listed weren’t covered as the bill is written. Hendren said he didn’t necessarily disagree. But he said these groups that have been traditional victims need to “know that this legislation recognizes that and is trying to address it.” Johnson rejected that explanation.
Sen. Trent Garner jumped Hendren for introducing an amendment today without talking with sponsors. Hendren said he didn’t know about the special order of business until today. “This is a hostile amendment at the 11th hour,” Garner said. Hostility is in the eyes of the beholder, Hendren responded, He said it “gives strength and clarity it needs to be viewed more legitimately.”
No one seconded Hendren’s motion to adopt the amendment.
Opponent of the bill: Jerry Cox of the Family Council, often termed a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It wants no hate crime bill of any type. He said Georgia has a hate crime bill and they still had the murder of the “Asian ladies.” He said there was no evidence hate crimes deterred crime. He also said the bill lacked protection for religious persons. Hendren’s original bill did. Cox opposed that, too.
Proponent: Randy Zook of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce repeated that only three states (Wyoming and South Carolina are the others) have taken no steps forward to punish those who target people for “some characteristic in their life.” He avoided mention of any specific class. He said the issue was “hot” with his members because of national press. He said recruiting talent is hard because of “this weakness” in our justice system. “People turn down jobs here because of what is not in our criminal justice system,” he said. Regional and national brand companies are “deeply concerned,” he said. He said they fear boycotts and “virtue signaling” on such issues as these. He took care to say he was an opponent of “cancel culture.” But he said Arkansas needed to be a place people want to bring investment and people. He said he’d be comfortable that language in the compromise bill would cover protected classes that appear in federal legislation.
Garner got Zook to agree this approach was more comprehensive than bills with specific categories.
“This is a workhorse bill,” Hickey closed. “It gets the job one.”
Hendren said the people sitting around the table were defining what hate crimes legislation should be when no one at the table is a traditional victim of such crimes. “I’m disappointed we don’t have more buy-in and support from the people this really impacts.” But he said he was glad to see the issue “moved down the road.”
Bottom line: The business lobby beat the evangelical lobby. This time.
It’s a poor substitute for a hate crime law, both practically and as a branding message. People are not stupid enough not to understand this bill wound up where it wound up specifically to avoid providing a word of comfort to LGBT people.
No amount of chamber of commerce “virtue signaling’ — to co-oot the phrase Zook so offensively employed — can change the record.
This is a state with a deep well of animus toward sexual minorities. Watch the vote on the veto of the anti-transgender law tomorrow. See the other laws intended to protect discrimination against them, while assuring preferential treatment of people who read the right version of the Bible. Talk to an LGBT person. Or a Muslim. Or an Asian person. Or a Jew.
Arkansas is still Darkansas.