INDIANAPOLIS – An Indiana Senate panel delayed voting Tuesday on legislation targeting hate crimes, a move that followed emotional testimony from a mother who said police disregarded race as a motive when her son was severely beaten for being black.
Indiana is one of just five states without laws that specifically take into account crimes fueled by biases toward things like race, religion and sexual orientation. But every year, efforts to change that founder amid fierce opposition from conservatives who say it would unfairly create a specially-protected class of victims.
Tuesday’s hearing came one day after the sentencing of a white Allen County teen, who will serve 30 days for attacking a 16-year-old African-American last June near a Fort Wayne-area trailer park.
The victim’s mother accused police during her testimony of not taking into account a pattern of racially motivated terror surrounding the attack. That’s in addition to threatening messages, dead animals left outside their home afterward, as well as a group of men that she said displayed a gun to some of her other children.
“Right now I am a Hoosier, but I wish I wasn’t,” the mother testified, adding that she moved her family from Illinois to the town of New Haven, not knowing they picked the “wrong community.”
Leaders of Indiana’s GOP-dominated Statehouse have consistently opposed hate crimes legislation. That changed in the wake of clashes between white supremacists and counter demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one woman dead in August.
Now House Speaker Brian Bosma of Indianapolis and Senate leader David Long of Fort Wayne both said they favour the idea. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has also said that he is open to it.
What remains to be seen is if they can get rank-and-file Republicans to go along with the bill by GOP Sen. Sue Glick, a former county prosecutor from LaGrange County.
Her bill would allow a judge to take into account whether a crime was motivated by someone’s race, religion, colour, sex, gender identity, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation or ethnicity. It would also require such crimes to be reported to the FBI. Currently, Indiana law enforcement agencies are not required to do so.
Much of the state’s business community is in lockstep support. They argue the lack of a hate crimes law makes Indiana look backward to corporations and skilled workers who may otherwise consider moving here.
Indeed, Indianapolis was named last week as one of 20 potential sites for a second Amazon headquarters.
Social conservatives, however, are mobilizing in opposition. They argue that a hate crimes law would punish thoughts, instead of focusing on the severity of a crime.
Jim Bopp, an influential Republican attorney from Terre Haute, testified the bill would recognize a “selected list of privileged people” favoured by “liberal and corporate elites.”
Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute, questioned whether there is actually a problem that needs to be addressed.
“There has been a suggestion that communities and municipalities and police departments are underreporting crimes — that judges need to be prodded,” Smith said. “What if Hoosiers really are tolerant and welcoming?”
Bopp and the Indiana Family Institute have previously opposed statewide protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Advocates say anecdotal accounts suggest the number of so-called bias crimes are on the rise and the Southern Poverty Law Center reports 26 active hate groups in the state.
Glick’s bill was scheduled for a vote Tuesday, according to the Senate’s committee schedule. But Corrections and Criminal Law Committee Chairman Mike Young said additional time is needed to review a slew of proposed amendments and work on striking a deal.
Meanwhile, some African American lawmakers said the proposal doesn’t go far enough. They called for even stiffer sentences for hate crimes.
The mother of the teen beating victim agreed. She said her son was called “the n-word and told him to go back to Africa” before he was beaten unconscious.
“I oppose this bill because it’s just not enough,” she said.