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The Journal Gazette

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Thursday, October 11, 2018 1:00 am

No action taken on hate crime legislation

State panel unable to give recommendation

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – An interim study committee heard four hours of testimony on hate crime legislation Wednesday but failed to forward a recommendation to the full General Assembly for or against the controversial proposal.

Ultimately, the Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code approved a final report that said some members support a bias-motivated criminal statute and some don't. The report also said there are possible positive and negative consequences to having such a law.

Rep. Tom Washburne, R-Inglefield, said draft legislation wasn't specifically called for. And he believes the testimony provided will prove beneficial to lawmakers when the 2019 session starts in January.

But Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said the interpretation of the charge of the committee was constrained.

“If we wanted to, we could make stronger and detailed recommendations,” he said. “The idea is to break the logjam.”

Indiana is one of only five states without an explicit hate crimes law. Wednesday's hearing was the latest installment in a long effort to rid Indiana of that dubious distinction – this time with the backing of Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Most states have a specific hate crime law that enhances a crime.

For instance, a person might be charged with a level 5 battery. But that charge would be enhanced to a level 4 battery with higher sentencing ranges if bias or hate was considered a motivating factor behind the crime.

Indiana Republicans have long rejected that measure. Instead they have considered proposals that would simply allow judges to use the motivation behind a crime – such as a person's race, religion or sexual orientation – to give a tougher sentence within the maximum already allowed for the crime.

It's called an aggravating factor and some already exist in state law, including the age of the victim and whether the victim has a disability.

David Sklar, of the Jewish Community Relations Commission, said hate crime laws are not exclusionary. They don't protect just blacks or Jews, for instance.

“We all have a religion or a sex or a race,” he said.

Opponents argue a judge can already consider the motivation behind a crime under a catchall provision in state law that says “the criteria listed ... do not limit the matters that the court may consider in determining the sentence.” An Indiana Supreme Court ruling from 2003 upheld that racial motivation could be used as an aggravator.

Parvonay Stover, on behalf of Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, said any law would be purely symbolic and just to get a hate crime law on the books.

Those opposed also wonder how long the list of protected characteristics could become. Some states have added homelessness and political affiliation, for instance.

“We oppose a hate crimes bill on the grounds that it is divisive,” said Al Parsons, of the Coalition of Central Indiana Tea Parties. “We believe it's un-American.”

nkelly@jg.net