Gov. Brian Kemp signed long-stalled hate crimes legislation into law Friday afternoon, creating new protections for victims of bias-motivated crimes in Georgia for the first time since 2004.
The bipartisan sponsors of the hate crimes bill, the governor and the swelling ranks of lawmakers who helped get the historic legislation passed joined to watch one of this legislative season’s tensest conflicts defuse somewhat in a Capitol ceremony on the last day of the 2020 legislative session. Georgia’s hate crimes law is set to become official July 1, the first time the state will have enhanced penalties for crimes motivated by bias since the Georgia Supreme Court struck down a prior state hate crimes law as too vague.
“Today we reaffirmed our desire to put progress ahead of politics,” Kemp said. “While this legislation does not right every wrong, it is an important step, and we will continue to do our part as state leaders to ensure that Georgia is a place where all people can live, learn, and prosper.”
It took more than a year for the proposal, House Bill 426, to secure votes to clear a Senate committee that kept it bottled up until last week. Last year the bill narrowly passed the House.
The law imposes additional penalties for some crimes committed based on a person’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, national origin or disability. On July 1, Georgia will no longer be one of four states without a hate crimes law.
More than a few lawmakers say the need to pass hate crimes legislation took on a new urgency after the viral video showing the February shooting death of African American Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick. Recent courtroom testimony from a state investigator included an account that one of Arbery’s accused killers muttered a racial slur after shooting him.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis in late May spurred protests against police brutality and calls for racial justice outside the steps of the state Capitol this month and more than a few lawmakers said they were moved by the mostly peaceful demonstrations.
Just a week before Kemp signed the legislation, the Senate committee that held up the hate crimes bill for a year added protections for police that the bill’s co-sponsor, GOP Rep. Chuck Efstration, called a “poison pill.”
By Monday, the committee moved the police protection provision into another bill and the full Senate approved the hate crimes bill with some data collection requirements added with a 47-to-6 vote. The House then approved it 127-38, setting up Friday’s signing ceremony.
Notably missing from Friday’s signing ceremony were members of Arbery’s family.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said the hate crimes bill is part of a compromise legislation that protects police against bias-motivated intimidation and could come at the expense of Black people.
Some House Democrats, the Georgia NAACP, ACLU of Georgia and Fair Fight Action also condemned House Bill 838.
“Though we stand in full support of all law enforcement, we believe that HB 838 is more dangerous to our community than HB 426 is good,” Cooper-Jones said in a statement. “To see the Legislature prioritize HB 838 instead of repealing citizen’s arrest is heartbreaking and does not do justice for my son.”
Arbery’s accused killers claimed they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest when they pursued him down a neighborhood street outside Brunswick and some lawmakers this month called for changes to that Civil War-era law. That effort faced steeper odds in the waning days of the legislative session and did not make it out of the gate.
Augusta Democrat Sen. Harold Jones, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that held the hate crimes bill last winter, worked alongside Republican leaders to get the hate crime legislation passed. He said the enhanced police protections are not harmful to Black people, but it isn’t necessary law to add five years to a potential sentence for killing a law enforcement officer.
“It was a first draft bill that was poorly worded, and I think they’re starting to realize that they’ve messed up on it,” Jones said.
“It took a lot of effort on both sides, Republicans and Democrats,” Jones said. “It was a heavy lift but it shows that bipartisan measures can be done.”
Later this year, a Senate study committee is set to examine policing reform and Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law that a Waycross District Attorney prosecutor cited when he wrote a letter saying the shooting death of Arbery was justified.
“We have to make some decisions whether you want to repeal it or just make some changes as far as misdemeanors and felonies like can you arrest for felony or arrest for a misdemeanor that occurs in your immediate presence,” Jones said.