A formal effort to end Arkansas' designation as one of the few states in the country without sentence enhancements for hate crimes began Friday with the release of draft legislation by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
The hate-crimes bill, released by Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, also has the tentative backing of the state's Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, his office confirmed this week. The bill would be considered in the regular legislative session that begins in January.
Arkansas is one of three states without a law penalizing hate crimes, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
On Friday, Georgia became the latest to enact such a law when legislation was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican.
Hendren's proposed legislation also goes beyond penalizing crimes motivated by racial or ethnic hate. In addition to those biases and enhancements for crimes committed against the homeless, disabled and those in the military, Hendren's legislation would cover crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, which could limit support among social conservatives in the Legislature.
"Obviously, the broader the bill, the more challenging it might become," Hendren said. "The concept is that targeting people because of their circumstances ... is something we as a society ought to say is particularly egregious."
Before the draft was even released Friday, the Family Council -- a conservative, faith-based advocacy group -- denounced the legislation based on news reports that Hendren was co-writing a bill with Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville.
"Targeting anyone and committing a crime is wrong and currently illegal," Family Council President Jerry Cox said in a statement. "When hate crimes laws levy harsher penalties for targeting some people but not others, the punishments can differ even if the crimes are the same. The penalty for assault or murder should be the same no matter the victim's race, religion, or sexual-orientation."
News reports on Hendren's efforts, which he said "leaked" prematurely, also caused consternation among some members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who said they felt left out of the drafting process. Hendren and Clowney are both white.
Rep. Jamie Scott, D-North Little Rock, a member of the caucus, wrote in a Twitter post Tuesday, "You can't bridge cultural differences while proposing hate crime legislation & exclude minorities from the conversations."
Scott was later listed as a co-sponsor of Hendren's draft legislation Friday, along with 13 other members of the Black Caucus. Scott could not be reached for comment Friday.
The Black Caucus met via conference call Thursday evening and heard from Hendren and Clowney before deciding to support the bill, according to its chairwoman, Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, who was also listed as a co-sponsor.
Elliott backed similar legislation as a member of the state House in 2003, when it was defeated in part because of religious groups' opposition to the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected class, according to news reports.
"Now we have people who recognize sexual orientation is not some bogey bear," Elliott said Friday. (Elliott is running for Congress this year but can remain in the state Senate through next year if she is unsuccessful.)
Hate crimes on the basis of race and sexual identity can be prosecuted federally under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. The law also requires the FBI to track incidents of hate crimes, though nearly a third of Arkansas' law enforcement agencies did not report hate crimes to the federal government, according to a 2016 analysis by The Associated Press.
In addition to increasing criminal penalties by up to one-fifth in the case of hate crimes, the Legislature's current draft bill would require the attorney general's office to collect data about hate crimes from all the state's law enforcement agencies and then submit that data to the federal government every year.
"It's not just about punishing individual crimes after they happen, it's about identifying where these crimes happen, and against who, to make it easier to prevent them from happening in the first place," Clowney said.
Hutchinson announced his support for hate crimes legislation last August, after a mass shooting at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart store in which the gunman reportedly targeted Hispanics.
In a statement released by his office Friday, Hutchinson said he would sign Hendren's bill if it reached his desk.
Hutchinson and Hendren said they view the the next regular legislative session as the appropriate time to introduce the bill, rather than holding a special session earlier.
"It is important that this work start early so support can build before the General Session in January," Hutchinson said in a statement earlier this week. "My hope is that this type of action will reduce racial strife and send a message that violence in the name of prejudice will meet an increased penalty under the law."
Hendren said he has yet to reach out to the rest of the Senate's Republican caucus to gauge interest, though he said he was hopeful for GOP support. Four of the bill's 19 sponsors were Republicans.
The incoming House majority leader, Rep. Austin McCollum, R-Bentonville, said preliminary talks with his caucus have revealed no consensus.
"I've heard strong statements both for and against," McCollum said.