Arkansas lawmakers have approved and sent to Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s desk a bill that purports to increase hate crimes protections for vulnerable groups, but critics say it’s a “sham” designed to thwart criticism of Republicans’ support for several other anti-LGBTQ bills that have been signed into law.
On Monday, the Arkansas House approved SB 622, which recommends specific penalties for violent crimes targeting members of a group — meaning any discernible group, not just historically marginalized communities. Under the measure, offenders must serve at least 80% of their sentence for “serious” violent felonies motivated by the victim’s membership in a group with shared “mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics.”
Supporters of the bill say it will allow prosecutors to seek out stiffer sentences for criminals for violent felonies. But detractors say the bill’s lack of enumerated classes makes it vague about whom its supposed to be protecting, and ignores simple assaults, harassment, or instances of vandalism that constitute the majority of bias-motivated crimes. A similar bill with stronger penalties for a wider set of crimes, and more enumerated classes stalled in committee this session.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), a former federal prosecutor, has previously urged lawmakers to pass a hate crimes statute, noting Arkansas is among only a handful of states without an existing hate crimes statute.
Hutchinson recently pointed to his support for sentencing enhancements for bias-motivated crimes when accused of promoting anti-LGBTQ bigotry with bills that he’s signed into law, such as a bill barring transgender athletes from competing in sports based on their gender identity, and another granting greater leeway for physicians to refuse to provide certain types of treatments to patients if doing so would violate their religious beliefs.
But conservative Republicans in the legislature have balked at the prospect of enumerated classes, claiming they are unnecessary, or have opposed specific protections for members of the LGBTQ community, arguing that such protections pose a threat to the freedom of speech and religious freedom of people who oppose homosexuality or transgenderism or believe it to be immoral.
The Anti-Defamation League has blasted the bill as a “sham,” saying it should not be considered a hate crimes bill at all, given the restrictions on which types of crimes it applies to, and its vagueness regarding who can be considered a victim of a hate crime.
“Hate crimes are message crimes that target individuals because of immutable characteristics that they cannot or should not be forced to change and are shared by members of their community. Not only do these crimes target individuals for who they are, but they terrorize entire communities who share that identity,” the ADL said in a statement. “Immutable characteristics does not mean being part of any ‘recognizable and identifiable group.’ It refers to particular categories of people who have been historically targeted for violence and discrimination.
“Any legitimate hate crime law must ‘name the hate’ by enumerating the immutable characteristics of race, religion, national origin, disability, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation. But throughout the process, proponents of SB 622 have vehemently opposed their inclusion,” ADL’s statement continued. “Instead of protecting vulnerable Arkansans, the bill sends the unmistakable message that Arkansas is at best indifferent to those traditionally targeted by hate, fear and violence.”
Critics have also noted that a provision of the bill that makes false reporting of hate crimes a Class D felony is likely to intimidate victims from coming forward, particularly in light of the bill’s vague language. For example, if a gay person is bashed because of their sexual orientation, and they seek to report the crime, some may fear that, in practice, the lack of explicit protections for sexual orientation could be interpreted by law enforcement as “false reporting,” resulting in the victim being placed on trial for violating the law.
The ADL dismissed claims by Hutchinson and some other lawmakers that the bill, despite its myriad problems, is needed to attract talent and business to the state, legislators’ recent actions — including the two bills signed by Hutchinson and the recent override of a vetoed bill that criminalizes doctors for prescribing gender-affirming treatments to trans youth — undermine any attempts to paint Arkansas as a welcoming state.
“In the context of the majority enacting three grossly discriminatory anti-LGBTQ+ bills, the anticipated passage of SB 622 will be viewed nationally as a disingenuous box-checking exercise devoid of any real effort or concern for protecting victims of hate,” the ADL said in a statement. “These anti-LGBTQ+ laws coupled with passage of SB 622 will play into the worst stereotypes about Arkansas because they send the message that the State is intolerant and does not embrace diversity. Ultimately, that message will scare off investment and the ‘talent’ that Arkansas needs.”
The bill isn’t beloved on the far-right either, with the conservative Family Council also condemning the bill for being vague and worrying that the legislation will infringe on personal liberties. But House Speaker Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado) argued prior to passage that the bill was “comprehensive” and “substantial” because it protects any possible group that may be targeted for violence.
Democratic lawmakers, however, were skeptical.
“I know that you’re going to vote for it because it makes you feel good,” State Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock), who is Black, told her colleagues on the floor last week, according to The Washington Post. But “the dose of medicine, as far as I’m concerned, is insufficient,” she added.
But State Sen. Jim Hendren (I-Gravette), a former Republican who sponsored the more comprehensive hate crimes bill that stalled in committee, said that while he has qualms about the current bill, it will be easier to come back in the future and amend an existing statute, rather than having to start from scratch.
Similar bills in other Republican-led states without hate-crimes statutes have encountered similar debates over protections. The South Carolina House recently approved a hate crimes bill with enumerated classes, with lawmakers stripping out protections for the LGBTQ community last month before inexplicably adding those protections back in last week. Meanwhile, in Wyoming, a proposed hate crimes bill was tabled and not even granted a vote.
Hutchinson is expected to sign the bill into law, but is already being blasted, along with his fellow Republicans, by equality advocates for seeking to trick business leaders into believing they are less hostile to the LGBTQ community than they actually are.
“Arkansas legislators are trying to paper over the most intensely anti-LGBTQ and specifically anti-transgender legislative session on record by passing a deceitful bill that does nothing to protect LGBTQ people and other vulnerable communities from hate crimes,” Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement.
“In an act of deep and painful irony, some legislators claim this bill protects LGBTQ people, the same people these legislators targeted by passing bills to harm them,” David added. “The truth is, this bill cannot even be called hate crimes prevention legislation. It fails to protect historically targeted communities based on their immutable characteristics and includes provisions meant to attack the dignity of LGBTQ people.
“The only legislation that could make up for the unprecedented slate of harmful bills passed this session would be full repeals of these bills and the passage of genuine, fully-inclusive hate crime protections,” he continued. “Instead, Arkansas is trying to create plausible deniability for legislating against LGBTQ people and targeting transgender kids, who are among the most vulnerable people in the state. They need support, not relentless and outsized legislative attacks when there are real problems to address in Arkansas.”
Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, a young man killed in an anti-gay attack in Wyoming in 1998, after whom a federal hate crimes statute is named, called the Arkansas bill “an insult to the very idea of hate crimes legislation.” Shepard, the founder and board chair of an organization named in honor of her late son, said the bill would only “encourage” hate crimes by providing no real penalties for perpetrators.
“Arkansas legislators are creating a dangerous and unwelcome environment for LGBTQ people, and targeting transgender kids specifically,” Shepard said in a statement. “Families should never have to fear for the safety of their LGBTQ loved ones, but passing this bill would be an endorsement of that fear and a warning sign for so many families who would have to weigh calling Arkansas home against keeping their family safe. This type of legislation is reprehensible, as it serves more as an excuse than a solution to the pervasive problem of anti-LGBTQ hate.”
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