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These are stories pertaining to the Legislative Session for Arkansas

Curtailed Hate Crimes Bill Passes Arkansas Senate Committee

Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, presents SB 622 to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Arkansas Senate
Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, presents SB 622 to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

An Arkansas Senate committee has advanced a bill that some are defining as anti-hate crime legislation, while others say it does not go far enough.

Under Senate Bill 622, felons who are convicted of a "serious felony" involving violence and in an "aggravating circumstance," which is defined as a defendant purposely seeking out a victim because the person is a member of a "recognizable and identifiable group or class" who share characteristics, would face extended jail sentences in that they must serve at least 80% of their sentence. The Senate Judiciary committee, by a voice vote, advanced the bill on Monday.

Though it does not mention the phrase "hate crimes," the bill is perceived as an attempt to institute greater penalties to those who are convicted of committing hate crimes against people due to some aspect of their identity, be it race, religion or sexual orientation or other characteristics.

Arkansas is currently one of three states without such legislation and an earlier filed bill that was more specific in who would be protected against hate crimes, has not gained any momentum in the legislature.

Speaking earlier Monday on the bill, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he hoped the Senate Judiciary committee would pass it.

"While the original bill was probably the strongest. This one does move the ball forward, accomplishes a great deal in terms of protecting any group that might be targeted because of who they are," Hutchinson said.

The bill has garnered criticism, with some saying the bill does not go far enough to protect vulnerable populations in the state and others saying the bill’s language could be considered as too far-reaching.

Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Gravette, proposed an amendment to the bill that would have specifically listed groups that he considered to be "traditional victims of hate crimes."

"It makes the bill more clear and my hope would be it would make it more bipartisan and more something that appeals to people who are actual victims of hate crimes traditionally, and feel like, this bill is...clearly saying that Arkansas will not tolerate crimes against people in these groups," Hendren said.

The amendment was ultimately not adopted due to a lack of action by the committee. In closing for the bill, Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said it will accomplish in better protecting Arkansans.

"Maybe it’s not as shiny as some people would like it to be, but let me tell you this. This is a workhorse bill. It gets the job done. It protects people. It protects classes of people," Hickey said.

Jerry Cox with the conservative group Family Council, spoke against the need for such legislation.

"If these hate crimes laws actually worked in these others states, you wouldn’t see all these terrible things going on. The shootings at the Walmart down in Texas and the killings in the churches and the schools and so forth," Cox said.

Randy Zook with the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce spoke in its favor of the bill, saying that Arkansas not having hate crimes legislation is harming efforts to recruit businesses to the state.

"This talent issue is a very real day-by-day issue that major companies around the state are contending with because of this weakness in our justice system," Zook said.

Before the vote took place, Hendren said that while he was appreciative that the state was "moving the ball down the field" when it comes to passing such legislation, he wished the bill were better and had more support from communities who are more often the victims of hate crimes.

"I think the problem with the bill is demonstrated by the fact of who’s sitting around the table deciding what’s the best policy," Hendren said. "There’s nothing wrong with any of us sitting around the table, but let’s face it. We’re not the traditional victims of hate crimes, yet we’re the ones sitting here defining what a hate crimes legislation should look like."

The bill now goes to the full Senate for a vote.

Sarah was drawn towards radio reporting her freshman year in college at the University of Missouri in Columbia, where she already knew she wanted to be a journalist. Throughout her junior and senior years, Sarah reported and produced stories for KBIA, the NPR member station in Columbia. She received her bachelor’s of journalism in Radio/Television reporting with an emphasis on radio.
Formally KUAR, news from the staff of content partners Little Rock Public Radio at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. They are a NPR member station.