For The Record

Georgia’s proposed hate crimes legislation gets renewed push

By: - August 16, 2019 8:30 am

The state Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday voted to largely follow the lead of House colleagues, spending more than the governor recommends for county public health departments, public defenders, educational loan repayments for rural health workers and other priorities. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Georgia lawmakers are renewing calls to pass a bill defining and setting punishments for hate crimes committed in the state, one of only five that do not have a hate crimes law on the books.

Supporters of the bill, which stalled earlier this year in the Georgia Senate, say it’s past time for the state to recognize the victims of crimes targeting one’s identify. However, a sampling of GOP lawmakers this week indicates the legislation could face another uphill climb if the Legislature considers it in 2020. Opponents argue the bill is an overreach and should not legally single out particular groups when criminal behavior is already punished under existing laws.

Twenty-seven hate crimes were reported to law enforcement in Georgia in 2017, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, per the most recent data available. The actual number could be far higher since only eight of the state’s 509 law enforcement agencies sent data on hate crimes to the federal law enforcement agency in 2017.

The bill, brought by state Rep. Chuck Efstration (R-Dacula), aims to set prison terms and financial penalties for people convicted of crimes that target a person or group’s race, sexual orientation, national origin or certain other identity markers. It passed out of the Georgia House of Representatives in March by a 96-64 vote, with 25 Republican lawmakers voting in favor, but languished in the Senate Judiciary Committee as the first cycle of the two-year legislative session ended.

If the law had passed during the 2019 session, it might have had legal implications in the case of the shooting death of Ronald Peters earlier, who Dekalb police say was killed near Decatur shortly after a gunman used an anti-gay slur. A hate crime law would also signal to targeted victims in a symbolic way that Georgia officials and the court system stand behind them, said Shelley Rose, the deputy regional director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Southeast branch.

“It’s as much for the victims as anyone else,” Rose said. “We need to be standing with those victims and show them that we as a society do not tolerate this kind of targeted attack on someone because of their identity.”

Lawmakers opposed to hate crimes legislation contend the state’s current criminal statutes are tough enough to prosecute crimes without the extra burden of attributing motive to identity-based hate. Some also said this week that the bill could politicize criminal investigations and prosecutions, causing controversy and stress in the general public.

“All it does is continue to separate out groups of people and say these groups are more valuable than any other group,” state Rep. Josh Bonner (R-Fayetteville) said. “It becomes more political than anything else.

State Rep. Ginny Ehrhart (R-Marrietta) said she believes the bill could create punishments for “thought crimes,” referencing George Orwell’s novel “1984.”“Whether we disagree with those thoughts or opinions is irrelevant,” Ehrhart said. “All crimes are hateful.”

Efstration, who authored the bill, disagreed it would penalize a person’s thoughts. Hate crimes differ from other acts because they terrorize groups of people and Georgia should no longer be “an outlier” state lacking  a hate crimes law, Efstration, a former Gwinnett County prosecutor, said Thursday.

“This is not criminalizing thought or speech whatsoever,” Efstration said. “What we’re talking about are certain heinous offenses that lack classification in current law.”

His view was backed by state Rep. Don Parsons (R-Marietta), who was one of the 25 Republicans to vote in favor of the bill in March. Parsons said Wednesday that passing the bill might “give (perpetrators) pause” before committing a hate crime.

“I don’t know if it would actually work out that way,” Parsons said, “but if it does it could save somebody from getting hurt or property getting damaged. And I think that’s a good thing.”

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Beau Evans
Beau Evans

Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.