Hate-crimes legislation advances to full Senate

Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey is shown Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021 at the state Capitol in Little Rock.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey is shown Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021 at the state Capitol in Little Rock.

A bill touted as an effective solution after years of calls for Arkansas to adopt tougher penalties on hate crimes was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday -- though support from traditional advocates for such laws was absent after some accused lawmakers of pushing "sham" legislation.

During more than an hour of debate Monday evening, Senate Bill 622 by Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, faced opposition from the Family Council, a faith-based advocacy group that has steadfastly opposed past efforts at enacting a hate-crimes bill.

The bill received support from the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, whose president and CEO, Randy Zook, said Arkansas' distinction of being one of three states in the country without a hate-crimes law made it harder for businesses to recruit people to work here.

At no point did anyone representing the LGBTQ community or minority groups -- who have pushed hard for legislation against hate crimes -- speak for or against SB622.

Hickey, the sponsor and Senate leader, also made a point of not referring to the bill as a "hate-crimes" measure as he spoke for its passage.

"Some people want to hear that it's hate crimes and others want to hear that it's not," Hickey said. "Basically, what I think this bill is, is good to go into Arkansas' code, and it serves its purpose of protecting people."

The bill's filing last week revived the discussion about the potential for passing a hate-crimes bill in the current legislative session, which is entering its fourth month.

Another proposal, Senate Bill 3 by Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Sulphur Springs, was announced early on with the support of Gov. Asa Hutchinson. That bill, which was filed before the session started, hewed much more closely to hate-crimes laws passed in other states with specific protections for race, sexual orientation and gender identity, but it also faced vocal opposition from many Republicans. Hendren ended up leaving the GOP after filing it.

Instead of creating sentence enhancements for crimes targeting specific groups, such as under Hendren's bill, SB622 would allow prosecutors to limit parole eligibility and seek longer prison terms for violent criminals who target their victims based on shared "mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics."

That language upset groups representing LGBTQ and minority communities, such as the Urban League of Arkansas, the Anti-Defamation League and the Human Rights Campaign.

The Anti-Defamation League said in a statement last week that the bill "is in no way a hate crime bill and it is nothing more than an insult to vulnerable communities targeted by hate."

Addressing that concern Monday, Hendren asked the committee to amend the bill to add language specifying that it would protect people based on their race, sexual orientation or gender identity. No one else on the committee agreed to support the amendment, and Hendren eventually voted to advance the bill.

"I think the problem with the bill is demonstrated by the fact of who is sitting around the table," Hendren said, referring to the all-white-male attendance at Monday's meeting. (The committee's only Black member, Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, did not participate in Monday's meeting.)

"There's nothing wrong with any of us sitting around the table, but let's face it, we're not the traditional victims of hate crimes," Hendren said. "Yet we're the ones sitting here defining what a hate-crimes legislation should look like."

Hutchinson, who supported Hendren's bill at the start of the session, said last week that he would support SB622.

The most significant opposition came from Family Council President Jerry Cox, who cast hate-crimes laws as ineffectual after decades of pressure to toughen penalties on the state and federal level.

"It's not an issue that's going to go away even if you pass this law," Cox said. "Most of these laws are the beginning, not the end of the discussion."

Zook, the chamber president, said the bill centers on one of the most important issues to the state's major employers, who he said struggle to recruit candidates who do not want to move to Arkansas because of its distinction as one of three states -- along with Wyoming and South Carolina -- that do not have a hate-crimes law.

Arkansas-based companies also face the threat of boycotts over the state's lack of a hate-crimes law, Zook said, adding that lawmakers in Wyoming and South Carolina are currently debating their own versions of such legislation.

"If those two move ahead, then we would be the only state with this dubious distinction," Zook said.

The Judiciary Committee advanced SB622 to the Senate floor by voice vote. It could be considered by the full Senate as soon as this week.

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