The push is on this session, even stronger than the last five years, for legislation giving Indiana judges the ability to consider bias such as race, gender or sexuality as an aggravating factor when sentencing criminals.
Leaders of both parties in the House and Senate acknowledge that some form of penalties for hate crimes will pass the Legislature, which begins its 2019 session on Jan. 3.
Although Gov. Eric Holcomb didn’t express an opinion on legislation during the 2018 session, he said in July that he would support such a bill. Indiana is one of five states without an explicit hate crimes law.
“No law can stop evil, but we should be clear that our state stands with the victims, and [that] their voices will not be silenced,” Holcomb said.
“For that reason it is my intent that we get something done this next legislative session, so Indiana can be one of 46 states with hate crimes legislation — and not one of five states without it.”
But House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, suggested that bias factors be added to the current list of aggravating offenses. Indiana law already defines bias crimes, but doesn’t make them aggravating factors.
“As soon as you make this a separate crime or start adding to the definition, it’s just going to run into trouble,” Bosma warned. “I think it’s time to get with the governor. I think it’s time to get it off the list of us being one of five.”
Bosma and other leaders spoke at a lunch sponsored by Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which supports a bias crimes law.
Indiana defines a bias crime as one committed by someone who injures a person or damages property “because of the color, creed, disability, national origin, race, religion, or sexual orientation of the injured person or of the owner or occupant of the affected property.”
It also includes injured people or owners or occupants of property who were associated with any other recognizable group or affiliation. The definition does not include such classes as gender identity.
Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, thinks a bias crimes law should go further than the current definition.
“My concern is, does it cover all protected classes, including gender identity?” Lanane said.
Holcomb’s support was announced on July 30, two days after the discovery of anti-Semitic graffiti, including two Nazi flags and two iron crosses, painted on a wall at a Carmel synagogue. A spot of grass next to the site had been burned.
A 20-year-old Cloverdale man, Nolan Brewer, was arrested on federal charges involving conspiracy to violate civil rights. His minor-age wife faces state charges of arson and criminal mischief. Brewer has since filed for divorce.
According to the Uniform Crime Reporting Program’s annual Hate Crimes Statistics report, law enforcement agencies reported double-digit increases nationally in hate incidents in 2017 compared to 2016.
In 2017, Indiana had 32 incidents stemming from a person’s race; 13 based on religion; nine due to sexual orientation and one for disability. Numerous communities, including Avon, Elwood, Goshen, Jeffersonville, Muncie and Carmel, did not submit data.
Last year, a hate crimes bill stalled in the Senate amid debate of what classifications would be included as motivating factors for a crime.
This session, bills have been announced by Sen. Mike Bohacek, R-Michiana Shores, and Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette.
Bohacek’s bill would allow a judge to increase the punishment if a perpetrator commits a crime against someone because of the victim’s perceived or actual characteristics like race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, political affiliation, status as a public safety official or service in the armed forces.
Bohacek’s bill would also require law enforcement agencies to report bias-motivated crimes to the FBI and Indiana’s central repository for criminal history information at least twice a year.
Bosma also urged a civil discussion over the issue, warning that contentious debate could bring up visions of former Gov. Mike Pence’s troubled signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which sparked national criticism.
“How the discussion takes place affects every Hoosier,” Bosma said. “If this is a big, knockdown, drag-out, RFRA-esque discussion, it is not going to help anyone and everybody is going to go to their corner and stand firm.”
During the summer, Senate Majority Floor Leader Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, met with Hoosier businesses. He said, “That list of five is being used against us, used against them as they try to bring employees in.”
“I think this is the year it’s actually going to happen,” said Lanane,
Noting that Democrats have sought a hate crimes law for at least five years, Lanane said, “I think this it’s the year now for us to come together to pass a meaningful bias crimes in statute in the state of Indiana. We’ll leave that list of only five states without one.”