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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 6:10 pm

Republicans strip bias crimes bill

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Senate Republicans on Tuesday stripped a bill of protections for specific classes of Hoosiers – opting instead for language that would let a judge consider bias of any kind in sentencing.

The emotion was so heavy in the Senate after the long debate that Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, interrupted the vote so that members could take a 30-minute break to cool heads.

When members returned the amendment passed 33-16, with seven Republicans and nine Democrats voting against the change. All northeast Indiana senators supported it.

"Today was a copout," said Senate Democrat Leader Tim Lanane, of Anderson.

He and others fear the move could ignite a similar controversy to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015 that ensnared the state in a national brouhaha.

It is similar in that some Republicans have expressed concern privately about including sexual orientation and gender identity. But Bray said his members did not object to specific items on the list.

"This is simpler and it catches everybody," he said.

The move goes against Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has pushed for a bill with an enumerated list of protected persons. He and a wide coalition supported the original legislation and want Indiana off the list of five states that don't have a hate crime law.

"The version of the bill approved today by the Senate does not get Indiana off the list of states without a bias crime law. We have a long way to go, a lot of work to do, and fortunately the time yet still to do it," Holcomb said. "I will continue to fight for the right ultimate outcome for our state and citizens this year so we’re not right back here in the same place next year."

Just a day before, a Senate panel passed Senate Bill 12 by a vote of 9-1.

It would have allowed 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 included a list of race, religion; color; sex; gender identity; age; disability; national origin; ancestry; and sexual orientation.

But Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, offered an amendment that removed all that language. Instead it simply added a comma and two words to state law – "including bias."

"The criteria listed in subsections (a) and (b) do not limit the matters, including bias, that the court may consider in determining the sentence."

Freeman said the amendment is meant to be inclusive – so that no one was left off the list. And he said it simply codifies an early 2003 Indiana Supreme Court decision that found racial bias was appropriate for a judge to consider.

"I think my amendment covers everyone equally," Freeman said. "You have a different idea. You want to have a list and you want to name people. I get it. My idea is different."

There is no definition of bias in the bill, and Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said it could apply to a person who beats a fan up because of a bias against Indiana University.

He was offended that issues like team allegiance are being treated on the same level as the color of skin or religious beliefs.

Taylor and Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-Gary, both delivered emotional speeches. They are black and at times even yelled at colleagues in the chamber to recognize blacks as being mistreated historically.

"All I ask is for you to treat me as a human being. Give us some kind of respect. Give us some kind of dignity," Randolph said. "What the heck is going on? Is this the United States of America? Show me we're friends. How can you say we're friends when you do things like this?"

A full vote on the bill could come Thursday and Bray said there are 26 votes to pass it. He said the caucus has asked several groups that keep the national list of bias crimes law if this version would get Indiana off of it and they declined to say before a law is passed.

nkelly@jg.net