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Hate-crimes resolution on agenda of Little Rock board

by Joseph Flaherty | February 23, 2021 at 6:50 a.m.
FILE - Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. talks to a limited crowd during a virtual grand opening for the new Little Rock Southwest Magnet High School on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Stephen Swofford)

Members of the Little Rock Board of Directors are scheduled tonight to take up a symbolic resolution expressing support for state legislation on hate crimes after the mayor and a city director endorsed swift action intended to back a proposal by state lawmakers.

The resolution says the city's mayor and members of the board "wholeheartedly and without reservation endorse approval" of state legislation that seeks to add enhanced penalties for people convicted of a hate crime.

The proposed Little Rock resolution references Senate Bill 3, submitted by state Sen. Jim Hendren of Sulphur Springs, and House Bill 1020, a version of the same legislation submitted by state Rep. Frederick Love, D-Little Rock.

Hendren announced Thursday that he is leaving the Republican Party and will become an independent, the same day that the president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce said the proposed hate-crime legislation is being revised.

If approved, the current hate-crimes bill in the Arkansas Legislature would add enhanced penalties for people convicted of an offense targeting an individual based on his or her race, religion, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation or military service, among other personal characteristics.

Under the proposed law, an offender could face an additional term of imprisonment equal to 20% of the original term; an additional fine equal to 20% of the assessed fine; or an additional term of probation or a suspended sentence equal to 20% of the imposed term.

The legislation contains additional provisions requiring the collection and publication of data regarding hate crimes. The measure has the support of Gov. Asa Hutchinson but faces opposition from conservative Republican lawmakers.

The resolution was set to be reviewed at Little Rock's board meeting last Tuesday, but last Monday the city canceled all public meetings through Wednesday because of severe winter weather and the Board of Directors meeting was rescheduled for tonight.

In an introductory section, the Little Rock resolution states that "the ability to dehumanize a person because of such a characteristic is a first and reprehensible step towards demagoguery and totalitarianism, and are totally and completely inconsistent with the individual protections and rights contained in the Constitution of the State of Arkansas, and in the Constitution of the United States."

"[I]t is important for the City of Little Rock, Arkansas, to state its support for such legislation in unmistakable terms," the resolution states.

During a Little Rock Board of Directors meeting Feb. 9, at-large City Director Dean Kumpuris asked the city's intergovernmental relations manager, Emily Jordan Cox, if it would be helpful if the city passed a resolution with regard to the hate-crimes legislation under review in the Legislature.

Cox appeared before the board to give a report on activities underway during the regular legislative session that began in January. In response to Kumpuris' question, she appeared noncommittal.

"Y'all are the Board of Directors," Cox said.

"I want the thing passed," Kumpuris replied. "I want to know what to do to help, so you tell me."

Cox asked if she could get back to Kumpuris on his question.

Moments later, Mayor Frank Scott Jr. praised the efforts of City Director Kathy Webb of Ward 3 for what he described as Webb's tireless efforts last year to have the Board of Directors pass a municipal ordinance on hate crimes, the first of its kind in the state.

The mayor then asked City Attorney Tom Carpenter if officials could move "as quickly as possible" to add the resolution expressing support for state hate-crimes legislation to the agenda for the upcoming meeting.

Kumpuris interjected to say that the board could add the resolution if members agree to do it, explaining that "we've done it here, we need to be on record with the state." He added, "I don't care what the state does, but it's silly for us to sit here and not do it, in my opinion."

Scott said he agreed, and suggested the city pass a resolution while working behind the scenes in consultation with the city's lobbyists to "figure out other ways how to be helpful."

The mayor asked Carpenter to quickly look over the city's procedures in order to proceed with a vote on the resolution, and Carpenter indicated he would.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Arkansas is one of three states that have yet to pass legislation on hate crimes. The other states are Wyoming and South Carolina.

Last summer, the Little Rock Board of Directors approved the state's first municipal ordinance addressing hate crimes.

The ordinance applied additional penalties for individuals convicted of a misdemeanor offense where the victim was targeted based on his or her race, religion, national origin, gender identity or disability.

Offenders can receive a range of enhancements to their sentence, including fines up to $1,000 for a first offense, up to one year in jail, or a combination of a fine and imprisonment, with the addition of mandatory supervised release for a period of up to one year.

Under the ordinance approved by the board, the extent of the penalty enhancement varies depending on the severity of the offense.

Certain acts such as causing physical injury, terrorizing another person with the threat of injury or causing a fire or explosion are subject to a lengthier term of imprisonment or a larger fine compared to damage done to property, as long as the extent of the destruction is less than $1,000.

During the Feb. 9 meeting, Scott portrayed the city's efforts on hate crimes as a social-justice priority as well as an economic one.

"Not only have we already led the way in the state with the ordinance, we're going to be leading the way hopefully with the resolution," Scott said. "This is something [that] is just the right thing to do, not only from a social perspective but also from a business perspective, and the state's capital city needs to continue to lead in that fashion."

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