LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Arkansas' Republican governor, attorney general and a bipartisan group of lawmakers unveiled legislation Wednesday that would impose harsher penalties for crimes motivated by the victim's race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, an effort that would end the state's distinction as one of three without a hate crimes law.
The bill would impose up to 20% additional jail times or fines for targeting someone because of those factors and others, including sex, religion, gender identity, disability or military service. Prosecutors could only seek the enhanced penalties if they can prove the victim's attributes was a substantial factor in the crime being committed.
“We need to say clearly that Arkansas will not tolerate violence against anyone because of their race, their religion or because of who they are," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said at a news conference at the state Capitol.
Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming are currently the only states without a hate crimes law. Georgia in June became the latest state to enact a hate crimes measure. The Anti-Defamation League praised the “clear sense of urgency" from Hutchinson and lawmakers for the measure.
“We commend the recognition that this is not a partisan issue and that we are seeing this important work being embraced on both sides of the aisle, and the willingness to work as one body to pass this needed and historic legislation," said Aaron Ahlquist, director for the group's south central region.
Hutchinson last year said he supported the enhanced penalties following a mass shooting at a Texas Walmart that is being prosecuted as a hate crime. Hutchinson on Wednesday also cited his experience as a federal prosecutor prosecuting a white supremacist group in the Ozarks in the 1980s.
Past hate crimes proposals have faltered in Arkansas because of opposition to the inclusion of sexual orientation in the measure. A conservative group in the state opposed the latest push on the same grounds.
“Unfortunately, this law creates more inequality by favoring special categories of people based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, and other characteristics," Jerry Cox, executive director of the Family Council, said.
Senate President Jim Hendren said the proposal faced another difficult fight but it was needed to send the right message about the state
“Failing to pass hate crimes legislation and being one of only three — or even worse, the only state without these basic protections that a majority of Arkansans support — sends a horrible message about who Arkansas is," said Hendren, who is also the governor's nephew.
The latest proposal is sponsored by 17 Democrats and five Republicans in the majority-GOP Legislature. Arkansas’ Legislature isn’t set to meet again until January, though it’s possible lawmakers could be called before then or a special session.
“I pray it will not be a struggle because why do we have to struggle do the right thing for our state and the people in our state? But if it is a struggle, we are up to it," Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott, who sponsored a hate crimes measure that stalled in the Legislature in 2001.
It also has the backing of Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican who called the lack of a hate crimes law “a stain on our great state."
Hutchinson was flanked by signs featuring the logos of companies endorsing the hate crimes legislation. Bentonville-based Walmart and Springdale-based Tyson Foods said they supported the hate crime law effort in their home state.
“Arkansas needs to be open for business and growth and that includes protecting the individuals who need it the most," said Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce.
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