Indiana University research questions effectiveness of bias crimes laws

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New research from Indiana University suggests that bias crimes laws might not be very effective—at least when it comes to homicides.

The report, released Monday morning by the IU Public Policy Institute Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy, says that even in states where bias crimes laws that specifically list victim groups exist, charges relating to bias are often not pursued. 

The center analyzed data from the Bias Homicide Database on 409 homicides that occurred between 1990 and 2016 to determine how often bias charges were sought on behalf of the victim groups.

Indiana is one of five states without a hate crimes law, and state lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow judges to enhance a penalty at sentencing if a crime is committed due to a bias. The bill initially included a list of victim groups that the law would apply to, but Senate Republicans stripped the list from the language before passing it last month. House leaders have already said there is little desire to re-insert the list. 

Despite Gov. Eric Holcomb's including hate crimes legislation on his top priorities for the session, some Republican lawmakers have also questioned whether Indiana needs such a law.

The IU study questions the effectiveness of having such protections in place. It found that in 70 percent of the homicides identified as bias-related, bias charges were not filed. 

Most of those homicides—91 percent—were considered anti-sexual orientation/gender identity or anti-race/ethnicity, but those cases only represented 35 percent of the bias charges filed.

Bias charges are more likely to be filed in cases involving religion, but far fewer of the bias homicides committed were related to religion. Those cases only accounted for 4 percent of all of the bias homicides studied. Of those, bias charges were pursued nearly 62 percent of the time.

“Although prosecutors are less likely to seek bias charges in the absence of statutory protections, the mere presence of these protections does not ensure that bias homicides would be prosecuted under this category,” the report says. 

The study recommends further evaluation of existing bias crimes laws, more comprehensive data collection because bias crimes occur more often than the data currently suggests, providing support for hate crimes victims and requiring training for law enforcement officials. 

“Our team’s findings suggest that fully addressing bias-related crimes in an equitable way is complicated,” Breanca Merritt, director of Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy, said in a written statement. “Yet a bill can include language that both helps potential victims while increasing knowledge for policymakers. Including language that calls for continued assessment of a hate crimes bill and support for victim groups could better inform policymakers long-term.”

In a written statement, Mindi Goodpaster, co-chair of the Indiana Forward campaign, which is advocating for a hate crimes law, said the study's "scope is far too narrow to draw sweeping conclusions about the effectiveness of bias crimes laws or question if Indiana should pass one."

Senate Bill 12, the hate crimes bill that passed the Senate, initially included a provision for training law enforcement, but that language was also removed when the list was struck. 

The bill has been assigned to the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee, but a hearing has not been scheduled yet.

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