Arkansas Governor Signs Alternative Hate Crimes Bill

Arkansas Governor Signs Alternative Hate Crimes Bill
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson in the Senate Chamber of the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., on April 8, 2020. (Tommy Metthe/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP)
Mimi Nguyen Ly

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on April 14 signed into law what’s been deemed as an alternative hate crimes bill.

Arkansas SB 622, introduced as a class protection bill, requires criminal defendants to serve at least 80 percent of their sentences if it’s found that they had “purposely selected the victim because the victim was a member of or was associated with a recognizable and identifiable group or class who share mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics.”

The bill, filed in the state Senate on April 1, was approved 22–7 on a party-line vote on April 7. The state’s Republican-majority House voted 65–26 in favor of the measure on April 12, before it headed to Hutchinson’s desk.

The law applies to those found guilty of “serious felonies involving violence,” including first- and second-degree murder, first-degree battery, aggravated assault, terroristic acts, arson, unlawful discharge of a firearm from a vehicle, or an attempt, solicitation, or conspiracy to commit felony offenses.

It doesn’t apply to other crimes, including misdemeanors.

Critics slammed the bill as not being a true hate crimes bill, saying it doesn’t refer specifically to categories such as race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The Anti-Defamation League called the legislation a sham and one 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.

“Let’s be clear, the legislation is not a hate crime bill, and if enacted, Arkansas will remain one of the last states without a hate crime law,” the ADL said in a statement. “Hate crimes are message crimes that target individuals because of immutable characteristics.

“Immutable characteristics does not mean being part of any ’recognizable and identifiable group.‘ It refers to particular categories of people who have been historically targeted for violence and discrimination. Any legitimate hate crime law must ’name the hate' by enumerating the immutable characteristics of race, religion, national origin, disability, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation. But throughout the process, proponents of SB 622 have vehemently opposed their inclusion.”

Sen. Jimmy Hickey Jr., who is also the state Senate president and the legislation’s chief sponsor, said earlier in April that he believes the legislation would include crimes targeting a wide range of identifiable groups.

“If someone targets someone because they’re transgender, that’s obviously an identifiable group,” Hickey said on April 1, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. “If someone targets someone because they’re a Baptist or Methodist minister, that’s also an identifiable group.

“It’s more fair this way.”

State Sen. Jim Hendren said that the bill’s definitions were too broad.

Rep. Matthew Shepherd, who is the state’s House speaker, said that the language of the bill on how it defines groups of people ensures that every single class of people is covered—even if newer groups of people arise in the future.

“Once we enact it, it’s there. You’re covered. Every class, every category, every group is covered, across the board, and really isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?” Shepherd said on April 1, according to Nexstar Media Group.

Hutchinson said he supports the SB 622 measure but acknowledged it wasn’t his first choice. Prior to the signing of the bill, Hutchinson said the measure would still provide greater penalties for offenders who seek to target someone because of their race, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

“The protection provided and the increased penalties are the ultimate test, and while I preferred different language, I am confident that this bill accomplishes the objective of increased penalties for hate crimes,” Hutchinson said in a statement.

The first hate crimes bill filed during the state’s legislative session, Arkansas SB 3, had been introduced in November 2020, sponsored by Hendren, and remained with the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee since January, but was later voted down by the committee amid debate among lawmakers.

This measure called for up to a 20 percent addition to any fine, imprisonment, probation, or suspended sentence, if the criminal defendant is found guilty of having committed the offense “due to [the] victim’s race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, homelessness, gender identity, sexual orientation, sex, disability, or service in United States Armed Forces.” It would have applied to both felonies and misdemeanors.

Hutchinson had previously called for support for a similar version of SB 3 in August 2020 in the previous legislative session.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.