Georgia’s state senators are hearing calls to pass a hate crime bill from the steps of the Glynn County Courthouse and from counterparts in the House in the wake of the Feb. 23 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man killed while jogging in a neighborhood outside Brunswick.
Georgia is one of four states without a hate crimes law. The U.S. Department of Justice is considering filing federal hate crime charges against the two white men charged with murder and aggravated assault in Arbery’s slaying.
Hate crime legislation in the form of House Bill 426 stalled in the Georgia Senate after it passed 96-64 in the House last year with 25 Republicans voting for it.
Lawmakers suspended the 2020 legislative session in mid-March as cases of COVID-19 spiked in Georgia and they are supposed to return to the Capitol in June with their most urgent task to pass next year’s state budget before the current one runs out on July 1. All other legislation will need to get in line behind budet work during the remainder of this year’s General Assembly.
In its favor, the hate crime law has bipartisan support from lawmakers who say it needs to be available for prosecutors in cases like Arbery’s, a 25-year-old shot after being confronted by a gun-wielding father and son in Glynn County.
Travis McMichael, 34, and Greg McMichael, 64, told police after the shooting that Arbery fit the description of someone they suspected of burglary and that they intended to force him to stop and hold him under citizen’s arrest until law enforcement arrived.
Arbery’s death is a stark reminder that it’s time for Georgia’s senators to step up and send the hate crimes legislation for Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature, said Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat and member of a Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill has yet to get a hearing.
The chair of the Georgia Black Legislative Caucus said Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jesse Stone need to support the bill to help show the state does not “condone hate of any kind.”
“Clearly, the statutes in place are not enough,” said Rep. Karen Bennett, a Stone Mountain Democrat. “As a state, we need to be unequivocal in our opposition to racial and other forms of violence. The final passage of HB 426 will be an excellent first step towards sending that message.”
The Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee sponsored House Bill 426, which allows prosecutors to charge someone with a hate crime if they can show it was motivated by a bias against a person’s race, religion, gender or other types of identity. The penalty for a felony hate crime conviction would carry a minimum two-year prison sentence.
Stone, a Waynesboro Republican, said Wednesday that he’s optimistic a hate crime bill can get through this year if it is amended to overcome some objections from fellow Republican senators.
Still, Stone said getting it passed will be a tall order with time running out for the 2020 session.
Stone said the bill as written now shifts too much power away from judges into the hands of prosecutors.
Some lawmakers who opposed the measure said they fear it could cause controversy by politicizing criminal investigations and that the state’s laws are already strong enough.
Stone said he talked with Duncan and other legislators about the bill and he’s still working to find a path for it out of his committee.
“There’s a lot of differing opinions, so we’re trying to incorporate as much as we can to get a consensus,” he said.
Duncan’s office did not respond to a Tuesday email inquiry about whether passing the bill is a priority for his chamber this year. His counterpart in the House, Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, remains vocal about his support of the law.
The chances of non-budget related legislation getting through in a year completely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandmeic will require some strong political backing.
“It’s going to take some real muscle behind it,” said Charles Bullock, University of Georgia political science professor. “The leadership, sure, it can probably push some things through.”
State lawmakers passed a Georgia version of hate crime legislation two decades ago, but it didn’t stand for long. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that a 2000 hate crime law was too broad.
But even without a state law passing, the Arbery case could still result in hate crime charges through the U.S. Department of Justice.
Former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said federal prosecutors typically refrain from filing hate crime charges unless it perceives not enough is being done on the state level.
“Let’s face it: If the new D.A. goes to a grand jury and whoever is guilty are given significant sentences, then it’s less likely that the feds will have a concurrent prosecution,” Olens said Monday on GPB’s Political Rewind.