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The Journal Gazette

  • Steuerwald

  • Leppert

Thursday, March 28, 2019 1:00 am


The fight goes on

Still time to undo bias-crime bill maneuvers

“Nobody, nobody is left out of this bill,” Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, said as the Indiana House grafted his pared-down list of anti-bias categories onto an unrelated bill Monday. “Nobody,” he added.

In the broadest sense, Steuerwald was right. The bias-crimes provisions added to Senate Bill 198, which passed the House Tuesday, allow courts to impose extra penalties for any crime directed at people or property because of a “characteristic, trait, belief, practice or association.” It also includes a reference to a list of protected categories in an existing statute regarding the reporting of bias crimes.

But that list doesn't have some explicit key attributes that must be added if Indiana is to have a truly strong, inclusive bias-crimes measure – including sex, gender identity and age.

The jury-rigged SB 198 is the latest move in a legislative shell game that would make a carnival-shark's head spin.

Just over a month ago, Senate Bill 12 passed out of a Senate committee with a strong, specific list of categories. That bill lived slightly longer than the average mayfly. The next day, the full Senate voted to strip all of the categories out of SB 12, and two days later it was sent on to the House.

Supporters of the original bill hoped they could strengthen it either during a committee hearing or on the House floor.

Then Steuerwald's surprise move Monday sidelined SB 12, adding vague and incomplete anti-bias-crime provisions to SB 198, a measure dealing with controlled substance offenses in penal facilities. That bill was already on second reading, so there was no opportunity for a committee hearing, and Democrats could not offer amendments before its final 57-39 passage Tuesday afternoon.

SB 198 now goes back to the Senate, where the earlier bias-crimes bill was eviscerated just a few weeks ago. But advocates of a strong, specific law haven't lost hope.

Gov. Eric Holcomb, who vowed to campaign hard for passage of a strong law, seemed to cave after Steuerwald's amendment, calling the bill at least “a step forward.” But in later statements, Holcomb seemed ready to fight on to add more specific categories.

“He was a supporter (of SB 198) on Monday, he backtracked yesterday, and I don't know where he was today,” House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said Wednesday. “It would be good if the governor would step up and try to get those characteristics into the bill.” With a month to go in the session, GiaQuinta said, there may be opportunities to add sex, gender identity, age and ancestry into SB 198 or even amend another bill to include a complete list.

“There are things the Indiana legislature can do to address the deficiencies in the bill,” Michael Leppert, membership chairman for Indiana Forward, a statewide coalition campaigning for a strong bill, said Wednesday. Leppert believes there could be broad support for adding crimes committed because of someone's sex or age to the list. The coalition then would spend the last few weeks of the session trying to persuade legislators to also add protection for the transgendered.

One quick remedy, Leppert said, would be to substitute the list of protected groups in the so-called “RFRA fix” law passed in 2015 for the less-comprehensive list from a bias-crimes reporting statute SB 198 now referenced by.

As written, SB 198 may get Indiana off the list of five states that have no specific anti-bias crimes law. It will not send the ringing message of inclusiveness an Indiana hate-crimes law was supposed to convey to people here and elsewhere. But there's still time to do better.

“We're not going to quit,” Leppert said. “There's no reason to quit.”