Indiana News

Senate amends hate crimes bill; upsets Democrats, Governor

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The Indiana Senate on Tuesday amended a hate crimes bill, leading Democrats to walk off the chamber’s floor and causing the governor to say, “We have a long way to go.” 

An amendment, approved 33-16, removed specifically enumerated characteristics of protected classes from the bill and simply called for judges to issue enhanced sentencing for “bias.” 

Republican Sen. Aaron Freeman, who represents southeast Marion County, authored the amendments that include the removal of page 19, which listed race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, disability, nation origin, ancestry, sexual orientation and age as contributing reasons to commit a hate crime, and reasons to aggravate the sentence of the offender. Instead, the amendment added the word “bias” to cover groups of people targeted in hate crimes. 

In his statements on the Senate floor, Freeman explained how his sister was excluded from extra credit in school because she missed class for Jewish holidays. He said he knows the effects of hate crimes but believes Indiana already has protections in place, citing the 2003 case of Whitmer vs. State of Indiana, where the Indiana Supreme Court ruled characteristics of the victim of a crime can support an enhanced sentence for the criminal. 

“The Supreme Court has already given us the tool to use bias,” Freeman said, “but there are folks, certainly in corporate community and others, that don’t believe we have a bias crimes 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.”

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Sen. Greg Taylor challenged Sen. Freeman within seconds, saying specifically listing characteristics in legislation protects individuals.

“I just asked you a question Senator, as to why you took out race when you know the courts have used race to aggravate a sentence in Indiana. Why did you remove race from the bill?” he asked, speaking over Sen. Freeman’s protests.

The hearing became more heated with several senators taking the microphone to call for a removal of the amendment and a reinstatement of the original Senate Bill 12. 

“We’ve done everything that’s possible I can think of including die,” Sen. Lonnie Randolph shouted at the microphone. “At the round of a noose. Shot. Gunned down, beat up. Talked about, criticized, disputed, spat on, everything, throughout history. What do we have to do? You tell me. I don’t know. I’m through.” 

Democratic senators stood up and walked out of the chambers. The amendment passed with Republican support and within hours several groups had submitted statements of disapproval. 

Governor Eric Holcomb issued a statement:

“The version of the bill approved today by the Senate does not get Indiana off the list of states without a bias crime law. We have a long way to go, a lot of work to do, and fortunately the time yet still to do 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.”

A hate crimes law is part of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s 2019 agenda. Indiana is one of five states without a hate crimes law. The others are Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and Wyoming.

WIBC reported that Senator J.D. Ford, an Indianapolis Democrat and the state’s first openly gay legislator, said, “This amendment is saying people like me don’t exist.”

David Sklar, co-chair of Indiana Forward representing major state employers, non-profits, faith-based groups, the Indy Chamber, the Indiana Competes coalition, colleges and universities, released the following statement. 

“We are deeply disappointed in today’s actions. The amendment to Senate Bill 12 guts the legislation that passed the Senate Public Policy Committee by a vote of 9-1 yesterday after overwhelming testimony by the state’s most prominent business, education, civic and interfaith leaders.

“We will not let this be the finish line for Indiana’s bias crimes legislation. Poll after poll indicates overwhelming support of Hoosiers for a strong effective and specific piece of legislation that protects all Hoosiers.

“We stand with Governor Holcomb in his unwavering support of a comprehensive bias crimes law with an enumerated list of characteristics that include: race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, and age.

“The changes made today to this legislation do not position Indiana to be removed from the list without a bias crimes statute. Without a list of characteristics, Senate Bill 12 is not a true bias crimes law.”

The Democrats issued a statement after the amendment passed. That statement concluded, “The Indiana Senate as the upper chamber of the legislature did not do their job today. They passed the buck and we did not protect Hoosiers.”

In a statement by email, Sen. Freeman said:

“Today, the Senate accepted my amendment to Senate Bill 12, which I believe includes and covers all individuals. As it now stands, SB 12 specifies that a court could aggravate a person’s criminal sentence if bias is a factor in their crime.

Previously, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that Indiana’s existing sentencing law allows judges to aggravate a person’s criminal sentence based on a bias motive. My amendment would cement that concept into statute.

In the 2003 Witmer vs. State of Indiana ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court, the following was said:

… we have affirmed the notion that characteristics of the victims can support an enhanced sentence … and we say without hesitation that racially motivated crimes are intolerable and may constitute an aggravating circumstance.’

I stand by this notion and believe that with my amendment, this bill could be used by the courts to punish those who harm any individual because of a bias against their victim.”

On Monday, Senate Bill 12 received criticism and support before a committee advanced it to the full Senate for consideration. The measure passed out of the Senate Public Policy Committee with a vote of 9-1 and overwhelming bipartisan support.

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