Legislators talk hate crime bill at local town hall

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Hamilton County lawmakers recently took time to hold a public town hall meeting Jan. 26 at the Hamilton County Government and Judicial Center in Noblesville to discuss issues in the current legislative session.

State Sens. J.D. Ford (D-Indianapolis), John Ruckleshaus (R-Indianapolis), Victoria Spartz (R-Noblesville) and State Reps. Tony Cook (R-Cicero) and Donna Schaibley (R-Carmel) took part.

Moderated by local attorney and government commentator Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, topics ranged from teacher pay to school safety to medical marijuana. But the one topic that took up most of the discussion time was proposed hate crime legislation.

Speaking directly to Cook, who has authored a hate crime bill introduced to this year’s General Assembly, Shabazz asked for additional detail.

Cook’s bill would implement terms for sentence enhancements, whereby a person must first be convicted of the crime associated with the hate crime, and also outlines what qualifies as a hate crime.

“When the sentencing comes, that’s when the prosecutor can argue for an enhancement to the sentencing. Since the (U.S.) Supreme Court ruled on (hate crimes) in 1993, they established protected classes and categories – race, gender, religion, age – the types of things we all have,” Cook said. “People will argue that it’s just unlimited, but you know some of the states that have it, like Wisconsin, have had it since the 1980s. So, what (I) did was glean out the best (categories) that have stood the test of time. My bill has 13, including all the ones in the Civil Rights Act, but it also adds sexual orientation, sexual identity, (military and law enforcement). I tried to take it and base it on FBI data, the number of incidents we were seeing in Indiana. The top three were race, sexual orientation/identity and religion.

“I think we’re past the time where we can do nothing. Right now, I’m frustrated because I’m not sure the bill will be heard, which I don’t think is the democratic process, to be honest with you.”

The 13 “identifiers” laid out in Cook’s bill are age, race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, ancestry, color, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, status as a police officer or service in the U.S. armed forces.

Schaibley, speaking after Cook, said she is “absolutely behind” the bill.

“I live a little over a mile away from the synagogue in Carmel, and I’ve been supportive of hate crimes legislation for years,” Schaibley said. “What happened at the synagogue was an act of graffiti, but it’s not normal graffiti. When you put a Nazi cross on a synagogue, that’s meant to intimidate the Jewish community and people at the synagogue. It has ramifications beyond just simple graffiti.”

Schaibley also spoke on how the state’s lack of hate crime legislation is potentially hurting the state’s economy and business communities.

“We are one of five states without hate crimes legislation, and when people look at coming to Indiana, they look at that,” she said. “Young professionals look at that. We want to keep young people in Indiana, and if we want to attract young employees, especially tech employees, we have to move this thing forward.”

Ford, the lone Democrat participant, agreed with Cook and Schaibley.

“I think with this bill, all we’re asking judges to do is take a look at the situation,” Ford said. “(Not having a hate crime law) does portray us to be a very backwards state. It’s the right thing to do. Particularly transgender people of color are being murdered at a very high rate. It’s time for us to get this done and move forward in our state.”

Spartz voice disapproval or support of Cook’s proposed bill, but rather discussed her frustration with the time spent debating the issue with no resolution.

“I would like us to debate and discuss this issue, figure out the best solution and move on so we don’t have to do this every year,” she said. “For years, we’ve been discussing this, (but) we have a lot of issues, and this has taken so much of our time. Issues like bias crimes and alcohol sales, they’re important, but they can’t take 80 or 90 percent of our time.”

Rucklehaus said he believes the legislature wants to make a statement about where it stands.

“There are two things that are very clear in this whole debate,” he said. “No. 1, there is not one person in the General Assembly in support of hate. No. 2, everyone wants to be treated and needs to be treated equally. We’re all on the same page that it needs to be a sentence aggravator, not the creation of a new crime. This will be a tool in the tool box for judges.”

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