A hate crimes bill backed by a bipartisan group of Georgia politicians and the business and religious community received a long-awaited hearing on Thursday, but no action was taken.
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard passionate comments from clergy and a former Republican state attorney general for a hate crimes bill filed last year that sparked some lawmakers to act as black people met violent deaths that have sparked protests and social unrest in recent months.
Former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said it’s long past due for Georgia to catch up with the rest of the country in having a hate crime law.
Georgia is one of four states that doesn’t tack on penalties when defendants are found guilty of acting on bias. He advocates for the 2019 hate crimes House bill that’s close to the finish line.
He said another hate crime bill, unveiled Wednesday by Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, has some notable provisions, referring specifically to Duncan’s plan for requiring data collection.
“There is no question that data would be a significant improvement,” Olens said. “We would suggest that gender, sexual orientation and religion need to be added to those categories at minimum. Those are the categories that the FBI tracks every year. And we don’t understand why they would not be in a bill in this legislature.”
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 in February.
The Georgia House narrowly passed hate crimes legislation in the 2019 legislative session and Republican House Speaker David Ralston said a failure to make that bill a law will create a “stain” on the state that will never be erased.
Duncan’s bill, though, was criticized by some as being too expansive and for potentially jeopardizing getting a hate crime law passed this year.
The faith-based leaders and current and former officials who spoke Thursday urged lawmakers to pass House Bill 426 since it’s already cleared the hurdle of getting through the House in 2019. The bill narrowly passed with a 96-to-64 vote.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican, said because his legislation specifies the protected classes it shouldn’t face the same fate of a 2000 Georgia hate crime law that was ruled unconstitutionally vague by the state Supreme Court four years later.
Efrstration’s bill 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.
A felony hate crime conviction could receive a two-year prison sentence, but the actual sentence is left up to the discretion of the judicial system, Efstration added.
“This is not a criminalization of thought or speech,” he said. “What this is is allowing the state to properly classify particularly heinous offenses. The passage of House Bill 426 will make clear there’s no place for hate in Georgia.”
Members of the LGTBQ community too often are victims of hate-related crimes so it’s important Georgia’s officials send the right message by passing a hate crime law, said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality.
“Without any criminal law on the book here in Georgia, law enforcement agencies lack direction on how to address crimes committed on the basis of a person’s perceived or actual characteristics,” he said.