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These are stories pertaining to the Legislative Session for Arkansas

House Committee Narrowly Advances Broader Hate Crimes Bill

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, presents Senate Bill 622 to the House Judiciary Committee.
Arkansas House
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, presents Senate Bill 622 to the House Judiciary Committee.

A bill that seeks to add prison sentence enhancements for Arkansans who are convicted of violent crimes that deliberately target people in “recognizable and identifiable” groups or classes is heading to the state House for a final vote.

By a close voice vote, which was denied the chance for a roll call, the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday advanced Senate Bill 622. It could be voted on by the House as early as Monday.

Under the legislation, Arkansans convicted of a felony involving violence who are found to be seeking out victims because they are members of a "recognizable and identifiable group or class," must serve at least 80% of their sentences. However, the bill does not use the term "hate crimes."

Some critics of this bill, but who backed the original, bipartisan supported hate crimes bill that was filed earlier in session, say it is important to specifically name the groups and identities that are statistically more common victims of hate crimes.

In presenting the bill to the committee, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, spoke on the concern that the bill is not specific enough.

"The beauty of this bill is that it does not elevate one class over the other. If you’re targeted or an individual is targeted based on their class or group, then they potentially have the protection of this bill," Shepherd said.

Under Senate Bill 622, anyone a part of a recognizable and identifiable group based on mental, physical, biological, cultural, political or religious characteristics would be covered.

Shepherd also rebuffed claims that this bill was not "a serious piece of legislation" and said the broader language strengthens the bill compared to other states' hate crime bills.

"Many states don’t protect sexual orientation. They don’t protect gender identity. Many don’t protect age. Many don’t protect political affiliation. The list goes on and on and on. Many don’t protect religious worship. Our bill protects all of those things, all of those characteristics again because we’re focusing on classes or groups across the board," Shepherd said.

Four members of the public spoke against the bill, with two of them wanting a more intentional and specific bill addressing hate crimes, while another was against hate crimes legislation as a whole.

In speaking against the bill, former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck focused on the legal viability of the bill.

"Prosecutors looking at this, even though they may be neutral at this point, may be hesitant to even use this tool in the toolbox because they don’t want to go up and get revered because it’s vague," Tuck said.

Randy Zook with the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, who spoke for it earlier on the Senate side, repeated his statement that having hate crimes legislation in the Arkansas code would assist businesses who are currently having trouble recruiting talent.

In speaking against the bill before the vote, Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, spoke on the need to name in the legislation, groups that are routinely the victims of hate crimes, as opposed to having non-specific language.

"The people who are targeted for religious reasons, LGBT reasons, racial reasons. They need protection. We know who those groups are and they should be named. And for whatever reason that we have to compromise in order to get something passed, I think we need to rethink," Flowers said.

Rep. Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, also spoke against the legislation, saying because the bill protects everyone, it does not define the people who are most hated.

"Historically, all people have not been victims of hate crimes. Certain minority groups have. Certain groups of folks have been targeted over and over, thus the need for a list that simply said in our state, we do not condone this discriminatory behavior," McCullough said.

The bill passed by a close voice vote. Committee Chair Rep. Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana, who is also a co-sponsor of the bill, adjourned the meeting before a roll call that may have failed the bill, could occur, even though several committee members requested it.

The bill now goes to the House for a full vote. If passed, it then goes to Gov. Asa Hutchinson who has expressed support for it.

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.
News from the staff of content partners KUAR at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. They are a NPR member station.