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Maggie Lee

Hate crimes proposal drives Georgia legislators apart — but consensus may be near

Maggie Lee
Demonstrators paused during a march June 13 on a route from Centennial Olympic Park to the Georgia Capitol and to Atlanta police headquarters. Credit: Kelly Jordan
Last update 9:36 pm to reflect late Monday actions taken by the Senate Rules Committee. See the original version here.

By Maggie Lee

Georgia House Bill 426 started as a near-copy of a law most states already have: extra penalties for crimes motivated by hatred of the victim’s race, religion, gender or so on. More than a year later, and after nationwide street protests against police brutality, a state Senate committee heard the bill and proposed adding police to the list of those so protected.

And just a few days after that, another state Senate committee backed down and removed all references to first responders from the bill.

Which means the Georgia Legislature could be close to passing a hate crimes bill by the time the annual legislative session ends Friday.

“We think this is something that’s good for Georgia,” said state Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, presenting the state Senate’s latest take to its Rules Committee on Monday night.

The Senate’s version would apply extra penalties to all felonies motivated by hate, and the penalties could include more than two years in prison.

The Senate version doesn’t include most misdemeanors — even though some of those, like aggressive driving, shoplifting or vandalism — are more common, if less dramatic and dangerous, than felonies.

But the House-Senate difference is small compared to what came before. Indeed, the Georgia NAACP was tweeting its support before the Monday night committee meeting even finished.

This shows that not all the fault lines in the state Legislature are partisan.

If the traditional, commonplace hate crimes bill as first written doesn’t pass, “it really will be an embarrassment to this state,” said state House Rules Committee Chairman Richard Smith, R-Columbus, last week, when this pot got to boiling.

He’s pretty much second in power only to House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who has for months used every chance he has to call for the passage of House Bill 426 as first written.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, at a Capitol press conference on Thursday. Credit: Maggie Lee

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, says passing the House’s hate crimes bill is a priority. File/Credit: Maggie Lee

“Hate crimes need to be passed. It’s just that simple,” Ralston said again last week. If somebody thinks it needs amendments, Ralston suggested they wait to add onto it next year, not change the bill that the House has passed already.

But the House vote was close back in 2019. A handful of Republicans like Smith crossed over to vote with mainly Democrats to pass House Bill 426 and send it to the state Senate for consideration.

And in the Senate the bill sat until last week, when the state Legislature returned from a break forced by COVID-19.

Lawmakers returned to a different political climate after new outrage touched off by the shooting death of black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick as well as the deaths of other Black Americans.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce, along with a group of civil rights organizations, thanked Ralston and other House leaders for passing 426.

“Prioritizing equality and inclusion in our society remains paramount to Georgia’s continued ability to be the best state in which to live and do business,” their statement read.

It’s not clear at all that a hate crimes law would end in many hate crime prosecutions. Data is scarce, but stories from federal law and other states suggest prosecutions are rare and difficult.

But what a hate crimes bill would do is send a signal that the Georgia Legislature is aware of the dangers of racism and homophobia, that it acknowledges the fear and intimidation caused by loud and sometimes violent hatred.

The enhanced penalties for hate crimes in the House bill could be as little as a fine for a misdemeanor, rising in steps to more than two years in prison for felonies.

Last week, Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan announced his own hate crimes bill that would protect more types of people than the House bill.

What got attention was Duncan’s inclusion of “culture,” status of having been involved in civil rights activities, “exercise of religious beliefs” (separate from “religion”) or first amendment rights.

Those aren’t generally part of hate crimes legislation across the country.

Critics raised questions about what his bill meant, and if it could survive a state Supreme Court challenge for vagueness. After all, that’s what ended Georgia’s old hate crimes law in 2004. For example, what about a secular action that’s tied to one’s religion? And what qualifies as “culture” or “ancestry?”

But that bill did not last long anyway. The State Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on hate crime legislation and passed what’s basically House Bill 426, but added “first responders” to the protected classes.

That is, firefighters, EMTs and police.

That law enforcement class appears in Louisiana’s hate crime law, but not in that of any other state, according to a 2019 state law list compiled by the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.

Cowsert, the Athens senator who would later present the bill dropping police from hate crimes legislation, said on Friday that police need protection for several reasons. For one, he said Atlanta police are walking off the job because they are not appreciated.

(Atlanta police acknowledged a higher-than-usual number of officers calling in sick one night after DA Paul Howard announced a murder charge against an officer in the shooting of Rayshard Brooks. The police said they had enough resources to maintain operations. The private nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation gave every officer a $500 bonus.)

“All we’re doing with this Senate version is saying it’s important for us to protect our first responders,” Cowsert said.

Just before voting for the amended bill, state Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough and one of Gov. Brian Kemp’s liaisons to the Senate, said that he hopes House and Senate, Republican and Democrat can get together and say: “We stand up against all forms of hate in our state.”

Democrats were not impressed.

Atlanta state Senator and Democratic Party of Georgia Chair Nikema Williams called the insertion of police a “Republican hijacking,” and said the GOP were only pretending to act on a hate crimes bill.

State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said adding law enforcement amounted to putting a poison pill in the bill to kill it.

That vote happened on Friday, Juneteenth, by the way.

State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, on the Senate floor Saturday.

State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, on the Senate floor Saturday.

The next day, state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, an African-American man, went to the floor of the state Senate.

“In a hate crime bill that’s been brought along by incidents by police,” Lucas said, “… to take them and put them in a protected class in the hate crime bill? I would never vote for it. Never.”

Lucas pointed out that the law already provides extra charges for people who interfere with police who are on the job.  He said he will fight a hate crime bill that has an occupation in it. That’s different from a category someone is born to.

He pointed to the back of his hand:  “Do you know what it’s like to be like this? Do you know what it’s like?”

(Most people in the Georgia Legislature don’t know what that’s like, by the way.)

The full Senate is scheduled to hear its version of the hate crimes bill Tuesday.

The legislative session ends Friday.

Documents:

House Bill 426 as passed by the state House

House Bill 426 as passed by the state Senate Judiciary Committee

Hate crimes bill proposed by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan

List of state hate crime laws as of 2019, complied by the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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