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Republican senators eviscerate legislation on sentence enhancement for bias motivated crimes

State Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, condemns a proposal deleting a list of protected classes from legislation providing a penalty enhancement for bias motivated crimes. The amendment to Senate Bill 12 nevertheless was approved 33-16 by the Republican-controlled Senate.

INDIANAPOLIS — The Hoosier State could remain one of just five in the nation lacking a hate crime statute after Senate Republicans on Tuesday gutted legislation providing a clear definition and sentence enhancement for bias motivated crimes.

It was a surprise change to a bias crime bill which Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, and a large coalition of business and community groups organized under the Indiana Forward banner, have identified as a top priority to ensure the state maintains a welcoming reputation.

Holcomb said in a statement following the Senate vote that the revised measure is inadequate and he vowed to work during the two months remaining in the annual legislative session to improve it.

"I will continue to fight for the right ultimate outcome for our state and citizens this year so we're not right back here in the same place next year," Holcomb said.

The amendment gutting the proposal was approved 33-16, with only Republicans in favor and seven Republicans joining nine Senate Democrats in opposing the change recommended by state Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis.

It deleted a provision allowing judges to count as an aggravating factor, when sentencing a convicted criminal to more than the advisory prison term, the fact that the crime was perpetrated against an individual or group based on their actual or perceived race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation or age.

Freeman's amendment also eliminated a requirement that current police officers and recruits be trained in recognizing, investigating and reporting bias motivated crimes, and a mandate that all Indiana police agencies regularly submit bias crime data to the state.

In their place, Freeman simply added the words "including bias" to the existing catchall language in state law that allows judges to consider any relevant factor when determining a criminal sentence.

He suggested even that probably is not needed since Indiana's highest court in 2003 ruled that a racial motivation for a crime is a valid aggravating circumstance to justify an enhanced prison term.

"The Supreme Court has already given us the tool to use perceived bias. But there are folks, certainly in the corporate community and others, that don't believe we have a bias crime law. I think we do. But I think we also should make it clear, to not only our citizens, but to the folks in the country, that we do," Freeman said.

"I believe the law should apply equally to everyone, and what I sought out to do was what, in my heart, I believe is the right thing to do for the citizens of Indiana, and that's add a comma and two words: 'including bias.'"

Democratic lawmakers argued that leaving it to judges in each of the state's 92 counties to individually define bias, and decide how it should be applied in sentencing, is a dereliction of duty by the Indiana Senate.

"We came up with specific direction to the judges to what we think is important for the judges to consider," said Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, referring to the version of Senate Bill 12 approved 9-1 Monday by the Public Policy Committee.

"The majority party in the Indiana Senate simply took that hard work, which was a step forward for the people of the state of Indiana, a step forward for what we stand for as the people of the state of Indiana, and quite frankly, they put it in the trash can."

In a passionate speech, state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, invoked the history of African-American accomplishments and the horrors of lynching and other historical attacks on minority races, to emphasize the need for a list of specific protected groups in the legislation.

Similarly, state Sen. J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, the first openly gay state lawmaker in Indiana history, said deleting the list of protected classes harms "the very same people that need to be protected under our laws."

"What this amendment does is basically say to folks like me, I don't exist," Ford said. "I don't think that's fair."

Senate President Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, insisted that the protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers did not specifically motivate Republican senators to change the proposal, as they have in prior years.

"This whole conversation has always been, philosophically, do you include a list in which you can maybe leave somebody off of there, or a court would interpret that somebody is not included in that, or do you make it more general so that everybody can be included," Bray said.

When pressed, Bray struggled to identify anyone whose characteristics would not be included on the protected classes list in the original legislation.

At the same time, Bray reiterated that he still believes the amended version is better, and stressed that it's still early in the legislative process.

"We can have conversations about whether there needs to be other changes or tweaks in it as we move forward and it goes over to the House," Bray said.

The Senate is likely to vote Thursday on whether to advance the revised proposal to the Republican-controlled House.

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Statehouse Bureau Chief

Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.