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Divisions among Indiana Senate Republicans once again doom bias crime legislation
2018 Indiana General Assembly

Divisions among Indiana Senate Republicans once again doom bias crime legislation

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana will remain just one of five states in the country lacking specific statutory consequences for crimes motivated by hate or bias toward a victim's particular characteristics.

The Senate Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law declined Tuesday to take action on the bias crime provision in Senate Bill 418, ending any chance for the legislation to advance for a vote by the Republican-controlled chamber this year.

Following the committee meeting, Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, told reporters there was insufficient support within the Senate Republican caucus for the legislation as written, or for any alternative hate crime proposal.

"Some felt the language should be modified to include all Hoosiers, not just special groups of Hoosiers. Some were just fine with the bill as is. Some believed that Indiana already allows an increased criminal sentence to apply in a bias crime situation," Long said.

"In the end, obviously, we were unable to find common ground."

Sentence enhancement

State Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, the sponsor of the bias crime legislation, said she understood why the measure did not advance out of committee. Though she was not particularly happy about it.

"It's disappointing because I think it needs to be addressed," Glick said. "But ... we didn't feel at this time that we wanted to go forward with a bill that was cobbled together."

"It's much better to step back and go through the process, and maybe in the future come back with something that's better written and does what we intended to do with this bill."

Glick's proposal explicitly authorized judges, when making sentencing decisions, to include as an aggravating circumstance whether the underlying crime was prompted in whole or in part by the victim's real or perceived race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation or ethnicity.

It did not create a separate "hate crime" or criminalize hateful thoughts. Rather, it gave judges discretion to issue lengthier prison terms for bias-motivated crimes.

A nearly identical measure was approved by the Senate's criminal law committee last year.

But it died on the Senate floor when Glick declined to open the legislation for amendment due to what she described then as "a difference of opinion" among Senate Republicans over which groups would be protected under her plan.

In response to similar arguments being made this year by some GOP senators and religious interest groups, particularly over the inclusion of gender identity, Glick said she believed her proposal would appropriately encompass and protect all Hoosiers.

"Many people read that list and see in their minds that it only applies to this race or this religion or these people," Glick said. "In fact, all of us have a gender identity, all of us have a sexual identity, all of us have a gender or a race, and in some cases even multiple races. I think it's all-inclusive."

"However, there's a good number of people who don't share that opinion, and I respect them as members of this body. They're elected to represent their constituency and they have a right to speak out."

Business impact

Long shrugged off the suggestion that not having a bias crime law on the books makes Indiana appear unwelcoming to minority groups and discourages companies from choosing to operate in the state.

Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and Wyoming are the other states lacking hate crime laws. Though who and what is covered varies widely in the 45 states that do have them.

"I don't think it sends any message," Long said. "Nor do I think we should tailor all of our legislation in the hopes that a company would locate here."

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, who is among the state officials working to attract the second corporate headquarters for online retail giant to Indianapolis, similarly said he doesn't think businesses will look elsewhere just because Indiana lacks a hate crime law.

"That doesn't mean I wouldn't welcome progress on this front, but we are No. 1 in so many (business) categories," Holcomb said.

"We'll continue to work with companies, whether they're here and growing, or companies that are looking at us, on a case-by-case basis, and we'll address any issues, short-term or long-term, that they may have."

Holcomb said he remains "open to the idea" of bias crime legislation. Though he reiterated that it's not part of his 2018 legislative agenda, and, as such, he has not pressed state lawmakers to advance it to his desk.

"Clearly this was an issue that had a lot of different opinions upstairs (in the Senate). Those need to be sorted out for progress to be made in the years ahead," Holcomb said.

State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, said he finds it sad that Indiana always is behind the curve on issues like this that impact the lives of minority groups in the state.

"We get into these situations where there's some kind of discrimination against them, but yet we don't want to take that seemingly baby step to say that they should be protected," Brown said.

Law not needed?

Long suggested that, in any case, Hoosiers already enjoy the protections that Glick's legislation would have provided, thanks to a 2003 Indiana Supreme Court ruling.

The 5-0 decision in Witmer v. State affirmed that trial judges are within their rights to identify racial bias as an aggravating circumstance of a crime, and to increase the prison sentence issued upon conviction if the aggravators sufficiently outweigh any mitigating circumstances.

"The sentencing statute's list of enumerated aggravating circumstances is not exclusive, of course, and we say without hesitation that racially motivated crimes are intolerable and may constitute an aggravating circumstance," wrote then-Chief Justice Randall Shepard for the state's high court.

Long said that should assure any Hoosier concerned about bias crime perpetrators being appropriately punished that the common law of the state provides for a sentencing enhancement, even if the Indiana Code does not specifically spell it out.

"We just can't get to the language yet," Long said. "I think we will. I think time will change some people's opinions in our caucus, or we'll have different members in there in the future."

"There are some issues that take longer than others. ... We'll give it a shot next year, and we'll see what happens."


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