Indiana hate crimes law study committee makes no recommendation

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A committee assigned to study hate crimes legislation decided this week to punt further discussions to the Indiana General Assembly, making no specific recommendation for the 2019 legislative session.

After hearing hours of testimony, the Interim Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code voted Wednesday on its final report, stating that every approach to the proposed changes had positives and negatives and should be resolved by lawmakers when they meet in the 2019 session.

The Indiana General Assembly has failed the past few years to pass hate crimes legislation. Indiana is one of five states that does not have a statewide law that specifically addresses hate crimes.

State Rep. Thomas Washburne, R-Darmstadt, who chairs the committee, said since this is a policy decision, changes to the legislation should be decided by elected officials in the upcoming legislative session when they can talk to their caucuses and recommend amendments.

“When you’re talking about something that’s a pure policy decision, you know, we have a lot of people on this panel who are not elected officials,” Washburne said.

Washburne said the committee was given little guidance when they called for members to examine bias crimes.

“When it was presented, the legislative council said ‘you shall study bias crimes’ and that’s all it said,” Washburne said.

Washburne said that under current law, Indiana gives judges the discretion to enhance a sentence based on bias against the victims, even though the specific term “hate crime” is not used.

But the panel heard from those advocating for a law that calls for enhancing a sentence when a crime is based on bias against a victim because of everything from race and religion to sexual orientation and gender.

Mark McCoy, president of DePauw University, was among the witnesses calling for lawmakers to adopt hate crime legislation.

“The absence of a hate crimes bill in Indiana speaks much more loudly than any of us would like,” said McCoy.

DePauw University was in the news earlier in 2018 when a few racist messages were found around campus and students protested with signs stating “We are not safe.”

McCoy said perspective students are increasing asking about security, equality and inclusion.

“Our university continues to take a strong stand against bias, hate and intimidation. Our city has a hate crimes ordinance,” McCoy said. “But when they ask about our state, we have to say that, at the moment, our state does not have a hate crimes law. Worse, we are one of only a handful of states that don’t.”

The committee heard an opposing view from Micah Clark, director of the American Family Association of Indiana.

Clark said that he believes the Indiana law is fine how it is written because judges already have the ability to enhance sentences for bias crimes. He also said such laws discriminate in favor of "politically favored victims."

Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, was the only committee member to vote no on the final report, citing his frustration with study committees in which a committee hears testimony and then writes a final report on what member heard.

“I think that our job should be to grapple with these issues a little bit in more detail and come up with some more solid recommendations,” Pierce said.

The issue of hate crimes legislation is expected to be raised in the Indiana General Assembly in the 2019 legislative session.

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