Arkansas Lawmakers Pass 'Hate Crimes Bill' That Some Say Doesn't Go Far Enough
A bill that increases sentences for those who knowingly commit certain crimes against "recognizable groups" in Arkansas is on its way to the governor’s desk. The Arkansas House gave final approval Monday to Senate Bill 622.
The bill is defined by some as hate crimes legislation, while others say it is not specific enough to be considered as a hate crimes bill.
Under the bill, Arkansans convicted of certain violent offenses against members of a "recognizable and identifiable group" would have to serve at least 80% of their sentences. The bill defines these groups as sharing "mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics."
Currently, Arkansas is one of few states in the nation that has not passed a hate crimes bill. Gov. Asa Hutchinson declared before the start of this legislative session that the passage of such a bill was one of his priorities.
A previously filed hate crimes bill that had greater bipartisan support failed to gain momentum and ultimately failed to advance a Senate committee. That bill specifically lists aspects of someone’s identity that make them vulnerable to hate crimes such as their race, gender identity or religion.
In presenting Senate Bill 622 to House members Monday, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, who is one of the co-sponsors, defended the bill against the notion that it is too vague.
"You look across the country, there are many states that so called 'check the box' that have many groups that are not protected. Many of the groups that some insist must be part of a hate crimes bill, there are many states where those groups are not even protected. But the fact of the matter is, in Arkansas they will be protected," Shepherd said.
Speaking against the bill, Rep. Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said because it "protects everyone," it fails to affirm that there are groups of people that are more likely to become victims of hate crimes.
"I’m speaking up for those who are getting lost and remain invisible in the bill. In 21 years in Arkansas since a hate crimes bill was first introduced, we still cannot admit or say that there are certain folks that are targeted," McCullough said.
She mentioned Black transgender women as one group in Arkansas that is currently a frequent victim of hate crimes, including murder.
Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, spoke in favor of the bill on the House floor.
"America has a long history of welcoming those individuals escaping tyranny on our soil and protecting Americans from tyrannical government and individuals. This bill simply says Arkansans will not tolerate violent crimes, especially those motivated by group characteristics. I’d appreciate a good vote," Boyd said.
Rep. Monte Hodges, D-Blytheville, spoke against the bill and said his role as a legislator is to serve all people.
"People that look like me, people who don’t look like me, people that voted for me, people who didn’t vote for me, Republicans, Democrats, LGBTQ, whomever the person may be, I’m here to represent them. I just don’t feel that this bill identifies those who need to be protected the most," Hodges said.
Before the House voted on the bill itself, legislators voted 61-34 to uphold a decision by Shepherd that backed the actions taken by Rep. Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana, chair of the House Judiciary committee, last Thursday. There, multiple requests to hold a roll call vote over Senate Bill 622 were denied because Dalby adjourned the committee meeting after saying the bill had passed.
Speaking against Shepherd’s ruling, Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, a member of the House Judiciary committee, said the procedure regarding a roll call vote was not upheld.
"Never since I’ve been here in this place where we talk about the integrity of the institution, we talk about how we need to be transparent, have I seen such an egregious and disrespectful adjournment to a committee that I happen to vice-chair," Smith said.
He, along with others who spoke against Shepherd’s ruling, requested the bill be referred back to the committee for a roll call vote.
Though she was against the bill in question, Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, also a member of the House Judiciary Committee, spoke to uphold Shepherd’s decision.
"The reason why I’m standing up here today is because what I don’t want to see is in the future, when someone doesn’t like the outcome of a bill, it is appealed and we go through this process and people make attempts to resurrect a bill, or change a vote, outside of the boundaries of the committee," Flowers said.
The bill now goes to Gov. Hutchinson, who had previously expressed support for it.