A new hate crimes bill has passed out of committee that would delay release for offenders who target individuals from identifiable groups or classes.
The Arkansas Senate Judiciary Committee passed Senate Bill 622 with a ‘Do Pass’ recommendation. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jimmy Hickey Jr. (R-Texarkana), holds that individuals convicted of violent crimes under an “aggravating circumstance” could have a delayed release, requiring them to serve 80 percent of their prison sentence.
According to the bill, offenders must be convicted first of a violent felony. The following crimes are listed as serious felonies involving violence: murder in the first degree, murder in the second degree, battery in the first degree, aggravated assault, terroristic threatening if a felony offense, terroristic act, arson, unlawful discharge of a firearm from a vehicle, and an attempt, solicitation or conspiracy to commit one of these offenses.
An ‘aggravating circumstance’ is defined as an act where the offender targets a 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.”
This is the latest bill that addresses hate crimes, although the bill does not specify that it is hate crime legislation. Sen. Jim Hendren (I-Gravette) addressed this, stating that he had received “conflicting reports” about what to call the bill. “Is this going to be considered a hate crimes bill when businesses and industries start looking at Arkansas whether or not we have one?” Hendren asked.
“I think as far as the terminology of hate crimes, that’s going to be for those individuals or those businesses to decide. As far as Arkansas businesses, we’ve heard from some, and it’s satisfactory to them. Of course, as you can tell, it doesn’t have hate crimes in its title or in the body at any point. It is what it says it is: that it’s a delay release,” Hickey said.
“I don’t want to dance around with you, but again, some people want to hear that its hate crimes and others want to hear that it’s not. Basically, what I think this bill is good to go in Arkansas Code and serves its purpose of protecting people.”
Hendren expressed a desire to clarify the bill, adding specific groups/classes of individuals into the bill, proposing an amendment that would add these groups into the legislation. This addition, he said, would provide legitimacy with traditional victims of hate crimes. However, the amendment was killed after a lack of a second when Hendren made a motion to adopt the amendment.
For Hickey, the broadness of the bill is a positive aspect, allowing it to cover a wide range of individuals and groups. He acknowledged that there were some legislators who did not want to specifically list protected groups, while others, like Hendren, wanted to specify the protected classes.
“All that really matters is the code protects these individuals,” he said. “I’m sitting at this table, saying if someone targets a transgender, the way this bill is written, they are protected, and if a prosecutor wants to bring that, it’ll be up to the prosecutor. This bill will apply upon conviction. The perpetrator would have to serve a minimum of 80 percent of their sentence,” he said.
Later, he said, “Some people like to say its broad. I like to say that it’s all-inclusive or inclusive enough that it covers a wide variety of groups who may be targeted.
During a pen-and-pad briefing held on Monday afternoon, Gov. Asa Hutchinson commented on the bill, expressing his support for the bill and a hope that it would be passed out of committee.
However, he noted that new bill lacked a “strict itemization” of protected classes and was not as strong as the original hate crimes legislation. “While the original bill was probably the strongest, this one does move the ball forward, accomplishes a great deal in terms of protecting any group that might be targeted because of who they are. That is success under any definition,” he said.
Family Council president Jerry Cox spoke against the bill during the committee meeting, claiming that there was no evidence that a hate crime law was needed. In a previous statement, Cox said, “S.B. 622’s protections for religious liberty are not adequate. The bill does not contain sufficient safeguards to prevent cities and counties from enacting their own, more stringent hate crimes ordinances. It does not do enough to protect free speech or prevent thought-policing. These are serious concerns.”
However, Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/AIA executive director Randy Zook supported the bill’s pssage, stating that the bill was a “key step forward in making sure that we are the place that we want to be.”
Zook said that he would be “completely comfortable” with the language in the bill when it came to recruiting companies to Arkansas when they asked about hate crime legislation.