Critics of Duncan hate crimes plan say late pivot dooms efforts this year

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan's last-minute pivot could jeopardize getting any hate crimes legislation passed this year, said Rep. James Beverly (center). He was joined at a Capitol press conference Wednesday by fellow members of the Georgia Black Legislative Caucus. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan proposed a new version of a hate crimes bill to the Georgia Senate Wednesday, which drew complaints from both Democrats and his fellow Republican lawmakers that a revision with time running out in the 2020 session jeopardizes chances of any hate crime law passing this year.

Hate crime legislation remains stalled in a Georgia Senate committee after it passed 96-64 in the House last year with 25 Republicans voting for it. House Speaker David Ralston and a bipartisan group from his chamber are calling for the Senate to quickly approve the version that’s near the finish line.

Georgia is one of four states without a hate crimes law to tack on potential penalties when defendants are found guilty of acting on bias. More than a few lawmakers say the need to pass hate crimes legislation took on a new urgency after recent courtroom testimony that one of Ahmaud Arbery’s accused killers muttered a racial slur after shooting him while their victim jogged in a Brunswick neighborhood in February.

Republican House Speaker David Ralston said early this week that failure to pass the House’s hate crimes bill in this moment of social unrest and calls for racial justice would place “a stain on this state that we can never wash away.”

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan says his new hate crimes proposal will give Georgia one of the toughest laws in the nation. A bipartisan group of House members says the Senate should take action on the hate crimes legislation it already has. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Duncan said the inspiration for his hate crimes bill stems in part from the slaying of Arbery, an African American man from Glynn County, where three white men are now jailed and charged with his murder.

Powerful business groups are an influential part of a wave of public support pressing lawmakers to pass a hate crimes law this year.

Duncan suggested Wednesday that his proposed rewrite is worth rebooting the legislative process.

“I’ve been meeting with faith leaders, elected officials on both sides of the aisle, law enforcement officers, business leaders, among many others,” Duncan said at a Wednesday state Capitol news conference. “What I have gathered from all of those conversations is an overwhelming spirit of support for a level of change that is much broader and much deeper than just one short year ago.”

He proposes to require hate crimes to take the form of an additional charge of “bias-motivated intimidation” in addition to the underlying offense. The hate crime charge would tack on a sentence of up to five more years onto the sentence for the underlying crime.

Duncan, who leads the Senate, said his proposed bill would offer First Amendment protections, and for cultural beliefs, social norms, and traits of a racial, ethnic, religious, or social group.

The Georgia Legislative Black Caucus quickly condemned Duncan’s injection of new hate crimes legislation into the mix Wednesday with nine days left in the 40-day legislative session. They pushed for the easier path to passage for House Bill 426, the hate crimes legislation now held up in the Senate Judiciary Committee after squeaking through the House last year.

Duncan’s plan needs to be attached to a related bill and navigate its way through both chambers before lawmakers close out a strange 2020 that was suspended for a pandemic that created a recession and budget crisis.

Legislators can revisit any shortcomings in House Bill 426 next year if need be, Rep. James Beverly said, but it makes more sense to take a first step than to risk progress this year.

“It’s an insult to our intelligence for this man to say today that he has a change of conscience,” Beverly said. “Let (House Bill) 426 go through. “This is just an opening salvo to a bigger statement,” he added. “It’s not the closing argument.”

The House’s hate crimes bill allows prosecutors to charge someone with a hate crime if they show it was motivated by a bias against a person’s race, religion, gender or other types of identity. Duncan’s proposal expands that criteria.

Requirements would include data collection and uniform reporting of hate crimes. It would allow for a local grand jury to indict someone for a hate crime charge instead of leaving that discretion solely to local prosecutors, as the House’s version does. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jesse Stone says he likes Duncan’s proposal as a more comprehensive approach than the House version that’s been bottled up in his committee since last year. 

Duncan’s legislative navigation plan is to graft his hate crimes proposal onto Senate Bill 984, relatively minor and bipartisan criminal sentencing legislation that originated in the House.

“I think it’s as close to a consensus bill that we can get,” said Stone, a Waynesboro Republican. “It takes everyone’s views into account and I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Lawmakers also are trying to ensure a new hate crimes law will survive  a court challenge.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.