Cicero lawmaker proposes hate crime law

By James Polston
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS—Hate crime legislation that includes protections for gender identity is again being proposed in the upcoming session of the Indiana General Assembly.

State Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, released draft legislation Tuesday that, if passed, would remove Indiana from the list of five states without a hate crime law.

“It’s not possible to eliminate discrimination and this bill is not about criminalizing thought, or First Amendment free speech,” Cook said in a statement. He added that there is still a lot more work to be done but this bill sets up a solid framework that helps support victims and hold criminals accountable.

Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, has proposed a hate crime law. Photo by Eddie Drews, TheStatehouseFile.com

The bill was created with input from prosecutors, judges and a variety of interest groups, ranging from religious and minority coalitions to business and university organizations, including working closely with Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council.

Indiana needs to send a message, said David Sklar, assistant director of the JCRC.

“We need to send that message as a state that we take this issue seriously and we want to join the rest of the country and come off that list of only a very, very few states that don’t have one of these statutes,” Sklar said.

Cook’s proposed bill would add the words “hate crime” to current law and allow courts to increase criminal sentencing if a perpetrator commits a crime because of bias against the victim’s perceived or actual characteristics. The characteristics are age, race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, ancestry, color, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability and status as a police officer or service in the U.S. armed forces.

State Rep. Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis, is hopeful that hate crime legislation will finally become law because of the support of Gov. Eric Holcomb, who called for a new law after anti-Semitic symbols were painted on an Indianapolis synagogue.

Legislation has died in past sessions because some lawmakers opposed extending protections based on gender identity. Shackleford said she hopes that provision doesn’t doom the bill again.

State Rep. Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis, supports inclusion hate crime legislation. Photo by Abrahm Hurt, TheStatehouseFile.com

“I think for Indiana to be a welcoming state, then we need to make sure that our legislation is all inclusive for all and I know the [Indiana Black Legislative Caucus] wants to ensure this legislation is all inclusive and fair for all,” she said. Shackleford is the leader of the IBLC.

In the past, opponents of hate crime legislation say Indiana gives judges the discretion to enhance a sentence based on bias against the victims, even though the specific term “hate crime” is not used.

Opponents have included Micah Clark of the American Family Association of Indiana, who voiced those concerns at a study committee reviewing the issue in October. Clark could not be reached to comment on the proposed legislation.

Sklar disagrees and said current law relies too much on a judge’s discretion.

“There is some ability for judges to consider multiple factors when they determine a sentencing crime, but that doesn’t mean we have a law on the books,” Sklar said.

Shackleford said the state needs the term “hate crime” written in state law.

But she doesn’t want to focus only on the penalties. Cook’s proposed bill would also require law enforcement to report hate crimes to the FBI and Indiana’s central repository for criminal history information at least twice a year to help officials identify trends. The proposal would also establish training standards for law enforcement officers to identify and respond to hate crimes.

The FBI reported a nationwide increase in hate crimes by 17 percent in 2017 compared with the previous year, according to the Uniform Crime Reporting Program’s (UCR) annual Hate Crime Statistics report released earlier this month.

“The increase in these crimes of hate in our communities, across the state and throughout the nation indicates that now is the time to act, and provide judges and prosecutors with more clarity in sentencing,” Cook said in a statement. “This legislation is important to adequately address the severity of these crimes and to help protect all Hoosiers.”

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce has endorsed hate crimes legislation as an economic development issue.

“With the already strong support of the advocacy community combined with the ever increasing support of the business community this year, will go a long way to making a case with legislators that this upcoming year is our opportunity,” Sklar said. “And we absolutely need to get it done.”

James Polston is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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