Assessing the outcome of the legislative debate about hate crimes is tough.
As a practical matter, we are pleased to see that lawmakers took action to pass a law that should—under any reasonable analysis—get Indiana off the list of states without a bias crimes law, a list that business leaders say makes economic development and talent recruitment more difficult.
We are less pleased that many Republican lawmakers did everything they could to ensure the law did not include specific language about gender identity. We think that’s short sighted, although we agree with Gov. Eric Holcomb that signing the bill into law was the right decision—and we hope that he is correct that the bill’s more general language will apply to transgender individuals.
As passed, the law would make defendants eligible for stronger sentences if their crimes were motivated by a victim’s real or perceived characteristic, trait, belief, practice, association or other attribute, including but not limited to a list of specific characteristics that were already delineated in another part of state law. That list includes color, creed, disability, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation.
Holcomb argues the language about a “victim’s real or perceived characteristic, trait, belief, practice, association or other attribute” is adequate to protect transgender people.
“Our new law will allow judges to enhance sentences based on listed and non-listed categories,” the governor said in a statement.
Critics aren’t so sure. They say prosecutors will be less likely to seek and judges will be less likely to impose harsher sentences for crimes motivated by characteristics that aren’t specifically named in the law.
We are concerned those critics might be right, but we support Holcomb’s decision to take the law he could get.
We expect advocates for a more comprehensive law will keep fighting to expand the list—and we support them. And we urge prosecutors and judges, when the situation arises, to use the new law in the way Holcomb has interpreted it.
Although we aren’t quibbling too much about the outcome, there is a part of the legislative process we have no choice but to nitpick.
Too much of the real action on this bill took place without public input or even out of public sight.
That’s intolerable—but it’s certainly not unusual.
Because Republicans hold supermajorities in the House and Senate, they can make decisions in their caucuses—out of the public eye—that are then turned into official action with little or no debate when the public is watching.
And in the case of the hate crimes bill, substantial changes took place in the House without a public hearing.
We know such action can make legislating more efficient. And sometimes it spares lawmakers from making tough decisions. But it’s easier to get public buy-in for the final product when people know they had a say. Lawmakers should make sure that’s always the case.•
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