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EDITORIAL: Indiana legislative action on bias-crime bill long overdue

August 3, 2018

It’s way past time for Indiana to join 45 states in passing a hate crimes law that will enhance or create new penalties when a judge or jury determines a defendant’s actions were motivated by bias.

Would such a law have stopped the offensive vandalism at Congregation Shaarey Tefilla in Carmel, where Nazi flags and iron crosses were spray-painted on two walls of a brick shed? Depends on whom you ask. It’s the same question that plagues death-penalty debates: Do harsher punishments deter criminals?

But a hate crimes law would mean anyone arrested for committing the vandalism at the synagogue could face tougher penalties if convicted. And that’s a pretty good reason to do it.

We understand—and even empathize—with several of the primary arguments against a hate crimes law: You can’t legislate what’s in a person’s mind. Indiana judges already have leeway to enhance penalties for almost any reason. And a hate crimes law signals government cares more about some classes of its citizens than others.

They are strong arguments.

But on balance, we believe crimes motivated by biases based on race, gender, religion and sexual orientation have broader ramifications than similar crimes carried out for other reasons.

Take the vandalism at Congregation Shaarey Tefilla.

If the synagogue had been tagged with images unrelated to Nazism or religion, the vandalism would have been annoying and expensive to repair. But it would have been far less threatening.

By evoking images associated with the murder of millions of Jewish people during the Holocaust, the vandalism takes on a different meaning. It strikes fear—or has the potential to strike fear—in the hearts of people not just at the synagogue but across the region. And that’s exactly what it’s meant to do.

Similarly, physically attacking a person because he or she is transgender sends a message to other transgender people that they are in danger.

If a judge can establish that such biases motivated a crime (and that can’t always be determined), the law should call for an enhanced penalty to fit the more heinous nature of the crime.

For years, the Republican-led Legislature has failed to recognize that reality. And as a result, Indiana is one of five states that hasn’t passed some type of hate crimes legislation, even as many GOP leaders have appeared more open. It’s embarrassing.

Now, Eric Holcomb is saying enough.

Previously, the Republican governor has worked largely behind the scenes to try to pass bias legislation. But now, he is taking the lead on the issue, saying he’ll meet with lawmakers, legal experts, corporate leaders and “citizens of all stripes who are seeking to find consensus on this issue so that, once and for all, we can move forward as a state.”

We appreciate his leadership. Again, it’s way past time for action.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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