Hate-crime bill debate rages

Indiana’s status as one of only five states without a hate-crime law continues to generate questions by local constituents pushing for such legislation.

Bishop Charles A. Sims Sr., pastor of Calvary Community Church in Columbus, opened Monday’s Third House session at Columbus City Hall by asking about the hate-crimes bill.

When Sims asked why Indiana didn’t have a hate-crime law, Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, whose district includes a portion of Bartholomew County, replied the state actually did.

Koch said Indiana has Supreme Court case law that allows a judge to factor aggravating circumstances such as those mentioned in the hate-crime legislation into sentencing decisions.

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Sims acknowledged that, but again asked why Indiana doesn’t have an actual hate-crime law.

Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, said Indiana Senate Bill 439, introduced Jan. 12, would allow a judge to take into consideration whether a crime was motivated by race or other factors and would codify that into law.

The measure would not create a new hate or bias crime in state statute, but it would let judges consider imposing tougher sentences on crimes motivated by a victim’s perceived or actual race, religion, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation, the The Associated Press reported.

Walker said an amendment has been added to the bill — which had been referred to the corrections and criminal law committee — to make the language more specific.

“One of the challenges of the bill is picking the groups to protect,” Koch said.

The amendments have been dealing with broadening the protections to everyone, although Koch said one of the advantages to case law already in place is that it already applies to everyone.

The bill’s author, Republican Sen. Susan Glick of LaGrange in northern Indiana, said she thinks there is stronger bipartisan support for this year’s proposal, but it would have to overcome opposition from at least two influential social conservative advocacy groups.

Sen. John Ruckelshaus, R-Indianapolis, joined as an author on Jan. 12.

The American Family Association of Indiana suggests the measure could be a step toward allowing the government to punish people for their beliefs, while the Indiana Family Institute is concerned it would create favored classes that leave some out and lead to unequal punishments for the same crime.

If lawmakers feel current punishments aren’t adequate, a more fair solution would be to raise the minimums on those crimes evenly, said Ryan McCann of the Indiana Family Institute. That way, he said, specific classes of people aren’t singled out for extra special attention in the law.

“We support equal justice for all Hoosiers and that’s why we oppose the bill,” McCann said. “We can’t accept equal justice for some and not all.”

Bill advocates, meanwhile, argue that although the crime may be the same, the larger impact and intent behind the crime warrant a judge’s consideration. Hate crimes are meant to instill fear in entire communities, they say.

Don Strietelmeier of Hope told the Third House audience he opposed any hate-crime legislation because of instances such as the recent killings of two Delphi girls.

Under hate-crime legislation, the deaths of the two girls would not be a hate crime because they were white, Strietelmeier said.

It also wouldn’t be a hate crime because the two girls weren’t gay or transgender, he said.

“Abby and Libby were murdered and their lives are just as important as anyone else,” he said. “Any kind of crime that brings harm to an individual is a hate crime. When we start breaking our citizens down into different categories, I don’t think we can have justice,” he said.

Ed Cherlin of Columbus said he didn’t think that justice for people of heinous crimes is special treatment particularly when people are being killed or harassed and having their property vandalized based on their race or heritage.

“Who is the victim of hate?” he asked.

He said it is the person who is singled out for having a different religion or national origin and targeted for that reason.

Cherlin’s comments were met by a loud round of applause.

Walker responded that he had considered legislation that created additional protections at funerals of veterans when protesters were interrupting the gravity of people burying their dead.

But he also said that the legislature has already given judges discretion to consider aggravating circumstances in sentencing individuals for hate crimes.

Walker said it’s important to hold people criminally accountable for their actions rather than their attitudes.

Glick, who also submitted last year’s hate-crimes bill, doesn’t see this year’s measure as quelling free speech because it would only apply to people who act on their beliefs in a criminal way.

“What we’re saying is your opinions are yours, you have that right. What you don’t have is the right to take that out on other people because you don’t agree with their religion or you don’t agree with their ethnic origin,” she said.

The measure currently being considered has been amended to extend protections to off-duty law enforcement officers who are targeted because of their jobs.

Although Glick’s proposal died in the House last year without a hearing after clearing the Senate, she said she hopes this year’s attempt is more successful.

“For the individuals that are targeted, it is so horrendous and has such a long-lasting effect,” Glick said. “I just think it’s important that we as a state, we as a citizenry, address their fears and eliminate them if we can do that.”

About 70 people attended Monday’s Third House session with Koch and Walker. Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, was ill and did not attend.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Third House schedule

Third House sessions, sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, are held every Monday while the Indiana General Assembly is in session with few exceptions.

The 7:30 a.m. meetings in the first-floor Cal Brand meeting room at Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St., allow residents to learn where their representatives stand on matters before the state legislature.

Third House will only be canceled if the local schools are out of session.

Contacting local legislators

State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, represents House District 59, which covers most of Bartholomew County. Constituents may reach Smith by phone at 812-372-2121 or 800-382-9841. Contact Smith by email at H59@iga.in.gov

State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, represents Senate District 41, which includes Johnson County and part of Bartholomew County. Constituents may reach Walker by phone at 317-232-9984 or 800-382-9467. Contact Walker by email at Senator.Walker@iga.in.gov

State Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, represents Senate District 44, which includes Brown County, Lawrence County and parts of Bartholomew, Jackson and Monroe counties. Constituents may reach Koch by phone at 317-232-9400 or 800-382-9467. Contact Koch by email at Senator.Koch@iga.in.gov

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.