Arkansas Senate approves hate crime bill advocates decry as “sham”

The Arkansas Senate on Wednesday approved a stripped-down hate crimes bill derided by longtime supporters of such legislation who claim the measure is too vague and would provide “insufficient” medicine for a state that’s one of only three nationwide without such a law.

The Senate voted 22-7 in favor of the alternate measure, which its supporters have called a “class protection” bill. The bill, which now heads to the House, requires offenders to serve at least 80% of their sentence if they committed a serious violent felony against someone because of their “mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics.”

Unlike an earlier bill that was rejected by a committee, the new measure doesn’t use the term hate crimes or refer to specific classes such as race, sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Whatever group you want to think of in your mind, right now, this will allow the prosecutor to look at that, have that tool in their toolbox to be able to bring this charge and be able to keep those perpetrators locked up for a minimum of 80% of their sentence,” Republican Senate President Jimmy Hickey, the bill’s sponsor, said before the vote.

Arkansas is one of three states without a hate crimes law, along with Wyoming and South Carolina. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has made passing such a measure a priority of his this year. Arkansas’ bill advanced the same day South Carolina’s House approved a hate crimes measure.

But Arkansas’ measure has been heavily criticized by longtime supporters of hate crimes laws, including the Anti-Defamation League, for not outlining specific categories and for not covering lower-level crimes. The group has said it won’t consider Arkansas as having a hate crimes law if the measure is enacted. The group has called it a “sham” legislation under which “virtually any violent crime based on a person’s association or belief would be covered, including crimes targeting white supremacists or neo-Nazis.”

The bill fails to protect vulnerable communities who feel  terrorized when hate crimes occur, Aaron Ahlquist, ADL’s South Central Regional Director, told CBS News.

“The unwillingness to even acknowledge the concerns of impacted communities is really in a nutshell where this bill fails,”  Ahlquist said. “It’s not a hate crime bill, first and foremost.”

The bill passed hours after the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the earlier version of hate crimes legislation that outlined the specific groups covered.

All seven Senate Democrats, including the chamber’s only three Black members, voted against the alternate measure. Five Republicans voted “present” on the bill.

One opponent called the measure merely a “placebo” that doesn’t recognize communities that have been targeted by hate crimes.

“I know you’re going to vote for it because it makes you feel good,” Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield, who is Black, said before the vote. “But it’s the dose of medicine that as far as I am concerned is insufficient.”

The bill has advanced during a session that’s been marked by a succession of bills targeting transgender people. A day earlier, lawmakers overrode Hutchinson’s veto and enacted a law that makes the state the first to ban gender confirming treatments and surgery for transgender youth.

“While they’re actively passing discriminatory bills that target and marginalize already vulnerable communities, they’re unwilling to even name those communities in their discussion around who deserves to be protected,” Ahlquist said. “That is an awful message to send to the world.”

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