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These are stories pertaining to the Legislative Session for Arkansas

Bill filed by House, Senate leadership to address class protections

Arkansas State Capitol

Arkansas is one of the only states without some type of hate crime law on the books, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said more than once it’s a top priority for him during the current legislative session. SB622, filed Thursday (April 1), will attempt to solve that problem.

The bill, filed by Sen. Jimmy Hickey Jr., R-Texarkana, Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and Rep. Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana, had not been assigned to a committee as of Thursday morning. Talk Business & Politics has confirmed that the bill is an alternative to the previously filed hate crimes legislation which has stalled during the session. It’s described as a “class protection bill.”

The bill will create an “aggravating circumstance” provision that will require a criminal defendant to serve at least 80% of his or her sentence if certain motivations led to the crime.

Those criteria include if the defendant purposefully selected the victim because the victim was a member of or was associated with a recognizable and identifiable group or class who share mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics, per the bill.

SB622 would require any defendant convicted of this aggravating circumstance to serve 80% of their sentence before they are eligible for parole.

“Purposely selected the victim” does not mean that a defendant’s mere abstract belief or expression was hostile or contrary to the victim’s being a member of or was associated with a recognizable and identifiable group or class who share mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics, per the bill.

“Serious felony involving violence” includes murder in the first and second degree. Battery in the first degree, aggravated assault; terroristic threatening, if it’s a felony offense; terroristic act; arson; unlawful discharge of a firearm from a vehicle and other felony offenses are among those listed in the bill.

The bill lays out the legal machinations in court to find for or against the aggravating circumstance.

There were a number of groups and leaders that responded to the bill’s filing throughout the day. Here is a roundup:

Gov. Asa Hutchinson:“I am very appreciative of the work of key legislative leaders in crafting a new bill that makes it clear that Arkansas will increase the prison time for anyone targeting another for a violent crime because of their race or other characteristic. While this is not the bill that I had envisioned at the beginning of the session, it is a significant step forward in giving assurance that we are a state that values the diversity of our country. I particularly am grateful for the work of the Speaker and Pro Tem who have come together to provide a path to get this important bill filed and hopefully passed.”

The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Arkansas:

“We work hard to make sure Arkansas is known as one of the best places to do business, live, and visit,” said Randy Zook, President and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Arkansas. “Employers looking to create jobs, and employees looking to locate value equity and inclusion. They want to ensure they’re choosing a state that is welcoming and safe for their families. We are that state, and we must make it known.”

State Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Gravette, a co-sponsor of SB 3, said the progress was good, but he still sees a gap between his bill and the new one.

“I am glad to see movement by the House and Senate leadership on passing a hate crimes bill. There is a lot of space between their bill and the bi-partisan bill that Rep. Love and I filed. I am not concerned about who sponsors the bill but that we pass a bill that is clear that it will provide real protections to those who have been victimized by hate crimes. I am hopeful we can find common ground on a bill that can pass and is also effective. I’ll continue to work toward that end,” Hendren said.

Aaron Ahlquist, ADL South Central Regional Director, issued the following statement:“The legislation filed today is in no way a hate crime bill and it is nothing more than an insult to vulnerable communities targeted by hate. The juxtaposition of this bill, which fails to enumerate protected categories or even use the term “hate crime,” with the enactment of legislation that specifically discriminates against LGBTQ+ people is a giant leap backwards for civil rights in Arkansas. The bill does not protect Arkansans from hate crimes and is merely an attempt to check a box saying that Arkansas is not the last state without a hate crime law.

“Under this sham legislation, virtually any violent crime based on a person’s association or belief would be covered, including crimes targeting white supremacists or neo-Nazis. ADL vehemently opposes it and urges a complete overhaul of the bill to specifically address crimes targeting victims because of their race, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. Any legitimate hate crime legislation must include and be limited to these explicit categorical protections. These categories – addressing characteristics that people cannot or should not have to change – are needed to protect communities who are facing a very real and concerning rise in hate-motivated violence.

“Should this bill become law, ADL will not consider Arkansas to be the 47th state with a hate crime law. Its enactment not only would jeopardize the safety of some of the state’s most vulnerable populations, but particularly in conjunction with the State’s new anti-LGBTQ+ laws would more severely damage Arkansas’ already tarnished reputation as a welcoming state to all. The bill’s failure to include categorical protections exacerbates the discriminatory message that the legislature has already created this session. This ugly and harmful message will undoubtedly influence whether businesses, tourists and others come to Arkansas as happened in Arizona, Indiana and North Carolina when they made similar decisions.”

Tyson Foods corporate office issued this statement in support of the new measure.

“As one of the largest employers in the state, our company cares deeply about the local communities where we operate and supports laws that seek to protect the rights of individuals to live free from victimization because of who they are, what they believe, what they look like, or who they love. We commend Gov. Hutchinson for his continued leadership to enact legislation that promotes protection and equality. Also, we thank the legislative leadership for working with the Governor and other interested parties to develop this bill, which demonstrates progress on this critically important issue in our state.”

Urban League of the State of Arkansas:“The Urban League of the State of Arkansas is excited to see that there is indeed activity happening in this space of Hate Crime Legislation. Today, the Urban League and several other entities held an informational press conference about the importance of and need for Hate Crime legislation in Arkansas, given that we are one of three states with no such laws.

“As to Senate Bill 622, we have had an opportunity to do a quick review, and we are in the process of analyzing it in more depth. Our response from our initial reading of the bill is that: more dialogue needs to be had between members of the General Assembly and the community as a whole to ensure that any legislation dealing with hate crimes will clearly, accurately, and fully capture the objective of such legislation which is to send a message to Arkansans, visitors, and businesses that lives, families, and communities are important and matter to the State of Arkansas.

“We believe that any Hate Crimes legislation passed in Arkansas shall include but not be limited to the protection of individuals targeted because of their: race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, homelessness, gender identity, sexual orientation, sex, disability, or service in the United States Armed Forces. Any legislation that does not encompass these individuals doesn’t readily accomplish the objective of hate crimes legislation. We look forward to working with members of the General Assembly to pass hate crime legislation this session and ensure that all Arkansans will be protected under this law.”

George Jared is a reporter for Talk Business & Politics.
This content has been contributed by the staff of our content partners Talk Business and Politics.