MARY BETH SCHNEIDER: Government by the people?

Indiana is poised to enact bias crimes legislation without a single hearing on the wording.

In fact, there’s been only one hearing on the contentious issue at all. That occurred in January, when a Senate committee heard from dozens of people, almost all of whom wanted a bill that specifically states that a judge can increase a sentence if the crime occurred due to a person’s age, race, religion, disability, ethnicity, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.

commentary-schneider-mary-bethThat version passed the committee with only a single “no” vote.

But on the floor of the Senate the next day, all of that was stripped out. In its place, the Senate voted to say a judge could consider bias, without specifying what kinds of bias Indiana finds particularly abhorrent.

Opponents of the bill promised to take their fight into the House. Those included universities, business groups, civil rights groups and—in particular—people who have found themselves threatened because of whom they worship, whom they love, who they are.

They never got the chance.

The Senate version—Senate Bill 12—was assigned to a committee. But no hearing was ever held.

Instead, this week Rep. Greg Steuerwald, the Avon Republican who was the chief sponsor of SB 12 in the House, drafted an amendment completely rewriting the language. He inserted it into SB 198, a bill about sentencing for criminals found with drugs in prisons.

Under it, a judge could consider whether the crime was based on bias against a person’s “real or perceived characteristic, trait, belief, practice, association or other attribute.”

This was the list-that-isn’t-a-list that House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, had said they were looking for. It says those attributes could include a section already in Indiana law that pertains to criminal history records-keeping and data and cites “color, creed, disability, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation.”

So, we actually have a list that’s a list, albeit incomplete. Missing is gender and gender identity. Somehow the Legislature chokes on that.

Advocates for an explicit bias crimes statute learned only a couple of hours before it happened that they’d effectively been silenced. They watched in shock as Steuerwald’s amendment was adopted in the House by a voice vote with virtually no debate—and a day later the bill was approved by the House.

Now, it’s likely to be OK’d by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb. (He’s been clear as mud: First he demanded that complete and specific list, then he applauded passage of the House version and then he said there was still time to change it.)

There are at least three problems with what happened.

First, that list is just permission for a judge to consider bias in sentencing, not a law saying it must be considered. Second, it is so broad as to be almost meaningless. If a guy punches someone because he likes Purdue and the other guy is wearing an IU hat, that’s a crime that occurred because of someone’s association. But it isn’t a hate crime. It isn’t an act perpetrated with the intent to terrorize an entire group of people who dare to be public with their religion, their sexual orientation, their gender identity.

But most importantly, there was no public hearing. No one from the public got a chance to directly and publicly tell lawmakers whether this particular wording makes them feel more welcome and safer in Indiana.

Steuerwald is a well-respected lawmaker, and I accept his word that he spoke to a multitude of people as he crafted his amendment. But that shouldn’t only be done in private, and he should hear from people he might not even know to contact.

Perhaps in a hearing there would have been no one in a hijab, the veil many Muslim women wear in public. Perhaps no transgendered person would want to risk making their private life public by testifying in committee. But they should at a minimum have that chance, especially once they know what the language is that likely will become law.

House Republicans knew the outcome or Steuerwald wouldn’t have offered the amendment. The real debate happened behind closed doors, in a GOP caucus that is all white, all Christian and mostly male. No one who has been a target of the hate this law is meant to address was there to share their experiences, their views.

What happened in the House is acceptable by legislative rules. But that doesn’t make it acceptable. It doesn’t make it right.

Sometimes how a law is passed is as important as what it says.

Mary Beth Schneider is an editor with TheStatehouseFile.com, a journalism site powered by Franklin College journalism students.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets on
{{ count_down }}