Editorial: Legislature must strengthen hate crimes bill before session ends

Keywords Editorials / Opinion

We were disappointed this week to see the Indiana Senate rip the guts out of a hate crimes bill that had been widely supported by business interests, including some of the city’s top companies and leading executives.

That may come as a surprise to IBJ readers. Just weeks ago, IBJ said a hate crimes bill that wasn’t comprehensive would be better than no bill at all. We were wrong.

And we certainly can’t get behind a bill that does, well, nothing, which is now the case with Senate Bill 12.

As passed by a Senate committee, the bill created an aggravating factor for sentencing in criminal cases, based on the victims of the crime. Essentially, the bill said that if the perpetrator committed the crime based on bias about the victim’s gender, sexual orientation, religion, race and other characteristics, he or she could face a harsher penalty.

But when the bill reached the full Senate on Feb. 19, the Republican majority (with a handful of exceptions) voted to take that list of characteristics out of the bill, leaving only a reference to bias, but without defining the term.

Supporters of the change say leaving the list out actually makes the bill more inclusive. It would now apply to bias against anyone or any group.

But judges already have the ability to enhance criminal sentences for virtually any reason. So what’s the point? Of course, that’s an argument opponents of hate crimes legislation use for doing nothing at all. Opponents say that if judges have broad power, why does Indiana need a hate crimes law?

There are several important reasons.

One is that crimes based on specific types of hate create fear among groups of people that has the potential to change their behavior in ways that are not good for our community. Indiana should make crystal clear that crimes against people who we know are at risk for persecution are particularly heinous because of their larger societal impact.

But another key reason is simply a practical one. Indiana is currently one of a few states without a hate crimes law and getting off that list is important to the state’s economic development and talent-recruitment efforts.

The state and local chambers have said so. Gov. Eric Holcomb has said so. Executives at Salesforce, Eli Lilly and Co., Cummins, Roche and other high-profile companies have said so. The leaders of business, not-for-profits and many (but not all) religious groups are united behind the push to put Indiana on the list of states with a hate crimes law.

But SB 12 in its current form probably won’t do it.

Would the legislation have been enough 20 years ago? Maybe. But the reality is that it’s not enough today.

Now, business leaders and organizations are looking for laws (and frankly attitudes) that make clear there is no tolerance for discrimination in a community or a state. Indiana waited longer than almost any state in the nation to act on hate crimes legislation and so that’s the situation lawmakers now face.

There’s no reason not to pass a comprehensive bill, and we call on lawmakers to do so. But we think they’ll need a little push. It’s up to Holcomb and business leaders to increase the pressure on lawmakers to act, to make voting for a comprehensive law the path of least resistance politically. We know you can do it.•

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