Proposed hate crimes law put to General Assembly decision

A committee that was formed to study hate crimes legislation in Indiana completed its work last week. The result? Let the Indiana General Assembly decide what to do.

And although the State Legislature has failed to do anything about the matter in past sessions, we’re not sure that’s a bad thing, even though Gov. Eric Holcomb has said he favors a hate crimes law.

The Interim Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code voted Oct. 10 on its final report, which concluded that the proposed changes had both positives and negatives, and should be resolved by lawmakers when they meet in the 2019 session. But the committee had no specific recommendations to offer.

Indiana is one of five states that does not have a specific hate crimes law, even though the issue has been addressed by the General Assembly in years past.

Committee Chairman Rep. Thomas Washburne, R-Darmstadt, said changes to the legislation should be decided by elected officials in the upcoming legislative session. He told the Indiana Business Journal that under current law, Indiana gives judges the discretion to enhance a sentence based on bias against the victims, even though the specific term “hate crime” is not used.

American Family Association of Indiana Executive Director Micah Clark, who was the last person to testify before the committee last week, said, “For more than a decade, Hoosier judges have had the ability to enhance a sentence for any victim of a hate crime, giving Indiana one of the broadest anti-hate crime measures in America.”

He pointed out that in 2015, Indiana had the 31st lowest rate of hate crime incidents, while the 15 states with the highest incidence of hate crimes “all have laws containing a politically favored victim list, which is what advocates of this law want here.”

He also stated that there were 76 hate crime incidents reported in Indiana in 2016, which is only 0.0002 percent of the 384,382 crimes in the state that year.

Clark said he testified that he believes “every one of the victims of these 384,382 crimes deserve justice, be it a hate crime or non-hate crime.”

As former News-Sentinel editorial page editor Leo Morris wrote recently for the Indiana Policy Review, proponents of a hate crimes law insist Indiana must send a message that we are “a tolerant state that values diversity and inclusion.”

But portraying Indiana as tolerant, diverse and inclusive should not be the issue in prosecuting crimes. And a problem with trying to designate some crimes differently from others in this way is that hate crimes laws may discriminate in favor of politically favored victims, by enhancing a sentence when a crime is based on bias against a victim because of everything from race and religion to sexual orientation and gender.

As Morris wrote, “Every violation of the law requires the same punishment of the transgressors. All victims deserve the same respect and concern for their well-being.”

Let’s not make a law that compromises those basic principles.