A bill that would enhance prison sentence lengths in Arkansas for defendants who commit a “serious felony involving violence” against someone in an “identifiable group,” is on its way to the state House of Representatives.
The Senate voted to advance it Wednesday by a vote of 22-7, with five voting present. Senate Bill 622 would cause those convicted of a violent crime against members of a "recognizable group," that share "mental, physical, biological, cultural, political or religious beliefs or characteristics" to serve at least 80% of their sentences.
The bill has been interpreted by some, including Gov. Asa Hutchinson who supports it, as hate crimes legislation, which was one of the governor’s priorities of the 2021 session. However, some opponents of the bill see it as too broad and want more specific language that mentions identifiers that are common reasons for hate crimes like religion, sexual orientation and race.
In speaking against the bill on the Senate floor, Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, called it a placebo.
"For those individuals like me, who have suffered disproportionally from the legal justice system and ask that you recognize the impact that hate has had on groups mentioned in the original bill. That has not happened," Chesterfield said. "I know that you’re going to vote for it because it makes you feel good, but the dose of medicine, as far as I’m concerned, is insufficient."
President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, spoke on his bill before the vote.
"We’re about to change the criminal code if we can do this," Hickey said. "This will allow the prosecutor to look at that, have that tool in their tool box, to be able to bring this charge to keep those type of perpetrators locked up for a minimum of 80% in their sentence."
The bill now goes to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.
Earlier Wednesday. the Senate Judiciary Committee did not take action on and ultimately did not pass Senate Bill 3, which was the original hate crimes bill. It would have created sentence enhancements for certain offences that are committed against a person, due to an aspect of their identity such as race, disability, gender identity and other factors.
The full list in Senate Bill 3 includes:
- Current or former service in the United States Armed Forces
- Gender identity
- National origin
- Sexual orientation
In presenting the bill to the committee. Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, spoke on the importance of language in the bill itself, identities that normally are the target of hate crimes as opposed to using broader language.
"Otherwise it gets lost in the obscurity of 'everything matters at this moment,'" Elliott said.
In questioning Elliott about the bill, Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, asked if the bill should reach further.
"If we’re going to have a bill that targets hate, shouldn’t it cover everyone? Shouldn’t it make it where if anybody is out there and because the person belongs to some group, culturally, politically, religiously, whatever, they’re a part of some identifiable group, shouldn’t they get that same protection as any other person?" Ballinger said.
Elliott said an issue with broadening such language is that it changes the definition of what a hate crime is, which currently lists identities that are more frequently victims.
"The thing that I think we have to grasp, if people who are marginalized, keep telling you, no matter how much you’d think laws are equal as was said by Jerry [Cox of the Family Council] when he was here, if I’m in a group and I keep telling you it’s not, and you just keep dismissing my experience and telling me 'yeah it is,' it is just like you’re being erased," Elliott said.
Though the bill did receive a motion to pass it, due to bill sponsor Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Gravette, serving on the judiciary committee, it did not earn a second, meaning there could not be a vote on it.
Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, made an uncommon "do not pass" motion, meaning the bill could not be taken up again in committee. It was an action that Hendren called hateful and petty.
"You have a bill before you with 19 of your colleagues as co-sponsors, with bipartisan support, with tremendous support from people that we represent. So I know that you can do what you want to do, but I just want you to think about the message that something that petty will do," Hendren said.
Ballinger responding to Hendren, called the whole process concerning this bill petty.
"Your plan was to become somebody real important. Your plan was to have this new idea of everybody coming together behind the man Jim Hendren. And no matter what it did to your colleagues, no matter what it did to your colleagues, that was the direction you were going," Ballinger said.
Though that motion did go for a vote and did pass on a voice vote initially, a roll call revealed the motion did not earn enough yes votes.