INDIANAPOLIS – Judges could consider the hateful motivation behind crimes against certain people when sentencing criminals under a bill approved 9-1 by a Senate committee Monday.
It is the first step in a long path for a hate or bias crime bill pushed by Gov. Eric Holcomb and hundreds of other groups and businesses.
“We're all compassionate people,” said Sen. Mike Bohacek, R-Michiana Shores – author of the legislation.
“Being compassionate is easy. Being unbiased and compassionate is hard,” he said, adding that it's hard because you have to show compassion to people and lifestyles you might not like or support.
Pierre Atlas said hate crimes are an act against an entire group – not just one individual or place. He is a member of a synagogue that was plastered with Nazi graffiti last year in Carmel.
“Hate crimes have an additional sinister motive meant to terrorize a group,” Atlas said.
But Peter Scaer, a Fort Wayne man representing a coalition of northeast Indiana clergy, opposed the bill and said those who don't support LGBT Hoosiers are labeled bigots and haters.
“Boys claiming to be girls may sleep with our daughters on overnight school trips. Is it OK to be against this without being labeled a hater?” he asked. “Equal rights are equal rights. Special protections simply weaponize the left.”
Indiana is one of only five states without an explicit hate crimes law, and the Republican-led Legislature has blocked efforts for years.
Many states have a law that increases the severity of the crime in certain instances. For instance, a person might be charged with a level 5 battery. But that charge would be raised to a level 4 battery, with higher sentencing ranges, if bias or hate was considered a motivating factor.
But the Indiana bill takes a more measured approach. Senate Bill 12 would simply allow judges to use the motivation behind a crime – such as a person's race, religion or sexual orientation – to impose a tougher sentence within the range 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.
The legislation includes a list of those protected based on race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, age, disability, national origin, ancestry, and sexual orientation.
“With this vote today, you can be on the right side of Indiana history,” said Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette. He chaired the committee and supported the bill.
An amendment was passed that removed other characteristics related to political affiliation, status as a public safety official, service in the military or affiliation with any recognizable group.
Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, said he would have preferred a bill that simply said a judge could consider bias in sentencing but not have a list.
“I don't know why we want to make this a complicated issue with a list,” he said. “I just think we need a cleaner option.”
He was the one member who voted no.
Representatives from about a dozen major employers in the state also testified in support – from Cummins and Old National Bank to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indiana Pacers.
“We need a clean bill that affirms Indiana will no longer remain ambiguous on hateful acts,” said Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League. He also pointed out that race is the primary motivator in hate crimes.
A number of conservatives opposed the bill – saying it threatens religious freedom and pointing out that only 19 states protect sexual orientation and gender identity.
Curt Smith, head of the Indiana Family Institute, said having a list of people means leaving some people off.
“We think we should have a very broad effort ... to make the punishment fit the crime,” he said.
Three years ago, the full Senate passed a hate crime bill that died in the House. The next year, it was never called for a vote on the Senate floor due to amendments filed. Last year, it didn't even get a Senate committee vote.
The House has never addressed the topic.