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Advocates push for more comprehensive hate crime law in Indiana

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A state lawmaker on Monday said Indiana’s current hate crime law doesn’t provide the courts enough direction.

Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, said he pushed for hate crime legislation in the legislature for 20 years. When lawmakers finally passed such a law in 2019, though, he voted against the final version because he felt it was too vague.

“Yes, we do/don’t have hate crime legislation. We do but we don’t,” he said, “because it doesn’t say specifically what it needs to say with regard to giving prosecutors the tools they need in their tool chest.”

Porter’s comments came two days after authorities say a white supremacist gunned down 10 Black people at a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York.

Jeannine Bell is a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law who studies hate crimes and extremism. Bell says it’s hard to say whether hate crime laws can prevent such attacks. She says the real value of the laws lies in the impetus they provide law enforcement. She gives the example of cross burning, an act associated with white supremacists but not considered a crime in the traditional sense.

“If someone burns a cross on my lawn, and they are punished under hate crime law, that is very useful,” she said. “Law enforcement officers are encouraged to find the perpetrator because of hate crime law.”

Indiana’s hate crime statute creates an aggravating circumstance if bias is a motivating factor. The language reads, “The person committed the offense with bias due to the victim’s or the group’s real or perceived characteristic, trait, belief, practice, association, or other attribute the court chooses to consider, including but not limited to an attribute described in IC 10-13-3-1.”

The office of House Speaker Todd Huston, a Republican from Fishers, said lawmakers deliberately used broad language to allow the law to be applied to future protected groups or deal with future circumstances.

Barbara Bolling-Williams, the president of the Indiana State Conference of the NAACP, says Indiana’s hate crime law is of little use because it does not provide any guidance for penalties. She says the current law means penalties can vary widely from county to county and even from judge to judge.

“We want to know that, no matter where a person is accused of committing a crime, that if it is determined that they are guilty, that they know and we know what the punishment will be, or that there will be a punishment,” she said.

Bolling-Williams says the NAACP has been pushing for more specific hate crime laws for years and will do so again when lawmakers return in January. Porter says he likely will attempt legislation to that end, though he’s not sure whether it would take the form of a standalone bill or an amendment to a related bill.