Indiana Senate committee moves bias crimes bill forward

After more than three hours of testimony and discussion on Monday morning, the Senate Public Policy Committee voted to send a bias crimes bill to the full Senate for consideration.

Senate Bill 12, which is authored by Republican Sens. Ron Alting of Lafayette and Mike Bohacek of Michiana Shores, would give judges the ability to consider whether a crime was committed out of hate or bias toward specific groups of individuals as an aggravating circumstance at sentencing.

The list of specific characteristics included in the bill are race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation and age.

The initial language also covered political affiliation, status as a public safety official or relative of a public safety official, and service in the military, but an amendment approved by the committee removed those categories.

Indiana is one of five states without a hate crimes law. Gov. Eric Holcomb made such a law one of his top priorities for this legislative session, saying he wants Indiana to get off “the naughty list.” At the beginning of the session, 10 bills addressing bias crimes were filed. SB 12 is the only one that will receive a hearing.

A variety of representatives from some of Indiana’s largest companies and business organizations, including Cummins Inc., Eli Lilly and Co., Anthem Inc., Cook Group, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the Indy Chamber, spoke in support of the bill at Monday's hearing, arguing that it would help companies attract top talent to the state.

“Our member companies are in an intense battle for talent,” Indiana Chamber President and CEO Kevin Brinegar said. “Voting for Senate Bill 12 is the right thing for our state’s economy.”

Officials from higher education institutions, leaders from major sports organizations including the Indiana Pacers, Indianapolis Colts and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and elected officials from communities including Fishers and Noblesville also testified in support of the bill.

Most of those who advocated for the legislation stressed the need to keep the list of specific groups in the language.

“It’s time to do something about it, … but we have to do this right,” Noblesville Deputy Mayor Steve Cooke said. “We’re not interested in merely checking a box.”

Those who spoke against the bill argued that it was unnecessary, because Indiana law already gives judges some leeway to enhance sentences based on bias.

“This bill is not needed,” Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute, said. “We think the courts are doing a fine job currently.”

The Indiana Attorney General’s Office is also opposed to the bill, saying it has “no teeth” because the maximum sentence length would not change.

“This law doesn’t give judges any new tools that they don’t already have today,” said Parvonay Stover, legislative affairs director for the attorney general's office. “This bill does not provide any new protections.”

The Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council supports the bill. IPAC Executive Director David Powell said by making a bias crime an aggravator that a judge can consider when determining the length of a sentence, it would allow the judge to impose the maximum amount. But without an aggravator present, judges cannot impose the maximum, he said.

The committee voted 9-1 to move the bill to the Senate. Sen. Philip Boots, R-Crawfordsville, voted against it.

“I don’t know why we want to make this a complicated issue and include a list [of protected classes],” Boots said. “I just think we need a cleaner option.”

A bill filed in the House did not include a list, and House Speaker Brian Bosma has indicated that some members of the Republican caucus prefer that option.  

Alting said the bill is comprehensive and needs to include a list, because that would match the legislation other states have passed.

“You can be on the right side of Indiana history, but more importantly, you can be on the right side period,” Alting said.

The deadline for the bill to pass second reading in the Senate is Feb. 25.

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