The measure, which the governor promises to sign, says offenders must serve at least 80 percent of their sentences for “serious” violent felonies motivated by the victim’s membership in a group with shared “mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics.” Advocates say it will expand prosecutors’ “toolbox” and allow them to bring strong penalties in a wide range of cases.
But the bill conspicuously does not name categories such as race and sexual orientation, amid politically thorny questions about whom these laws should seek to protect. Skeptics say it’s so vague it could apply to attacks on neo-Nazis. Another bill with stronger penalties, more specific language and more covered crimes never made it out of committee.
It’s bittersweet progress for state Sen. Jim Hendren, an independent who co-sponsored the bill that died in committee and voted for the latest measure despite misgivings. He left the GOP this year and says his old party needs to condemn racism more forcefully.
“It’s taken a long time for us to get to the point where the leadership on both sides of the Capitol have come to understand that we absolutely cannot fail in this effort, and it would be just a tragedy for Arkansas,” Hendren said in an interview.
“We’ve gotten to the point where the far right is really the dominant force in the legislature, and that’s made this more difficult,” he said.
Momentum for a new law built amid nationwide calls to punish hateful attacks after a year of racial reckoning and a drumbeat of widely publicized assaults on Asian Americans. Arkansas is one of three states that lack a hate-crime law — something that Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a former federal prosecutor, has urged lawmakers to change.
But proposals have repeatedly run into conservative opposition, with some calling hate-crime measures unnecessary or framing it as a threat to freedom of speech and religion. A major sticking point in Arkansas and other Republican-controlled states over the years has been protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.
Arkansas made national headlines last week for the nation’s first law banning gender-affirming medical treatments for transgender youths.
“The legislature has been on a very anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans mission, and they do not want to include those groups as protected classes,” said Joshua Ang Price, who helped organize a Capitol rally this month to call for a hate-crime measure.
Ang Price, who leads the state’s Asian American Pacific Islander Democratic Caucus, refers to the greenlit legislation as “hate crimes lite.” Another critic, the Anti-Defamation League, says SB 622 should not be considered a hate-crime bill at all.
“Instead of protecting vulnerable Arkansans, the bill sends the unmistakable message that Arkansas is at best indifferent to those traditionally targeted by hate, fear and violence,” the organization said in a statement.
The bill sticks to more serious violent felonies, leaving out the “simple assaults, harassment and vandalism” that make up many hate crimes, the group said. It also makes false reporting of hate crimes a Class D felony, which the Anti-Defamation League argues will “deter already traumatized and fearful victims from coming forward.”
On the right, the conservative Family Council denounced the bill as “so ambiguous that it’s impossible to know just how far-reaching this legislation may be,” while state Rep. Josh Miller (R) said Monday ahead of a vote that he thinks legislators are “just satisfying some national need for correctness.”
The bill’s sponsors acknowledge that the issue is hotly contested but said the bill is meant to cover everyone.
“The bill in front of you today is comprehensive — it’s substantial,” said House Speaker Matthew Shepherd (R).
Hutchinson said in a statement that he supported a “more specific” bill but defended the legislature’s work: “This is a stronger version of hate crime legislation than many states have,” he said.
The bill passed the state Senate 22 to 7 and the House 65 to 26 after some lawmakers gave impassioned objections.
“I know that you’re going to vote for it because it makes you feel good,” Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D), who is Black, told her colleagues on the floor last week. But “the dose of medicine, as far as I’m concerned, is insufficient,” she added.
Sen. Joyce Elliott (D), who is also Black, said the bill does a disservice to victims “because we don’t honor them enough to even name who they are.”
Republicans defended the bill’s broad scope, with Sen. Jason Rapert (R) bristling at the suggestion that it should focus on historically targeted groups.
“When you say that my family has no right for protection, because historically you might say my family is not some particular group, I take exception to that,” he said.
The past year’s spotlight on racism has brought new, bipartisan momentum for fighting hateful attacks with harsher sentences, while highlighting divisions about the right approach.
Georgia passed a hate-crime law last year after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man chased and shot by White men in a struggle captured on viral video. Many see last month’s mass shootings at three Asian spas as a high-profile test of the new law, as it remains unclear whether prosecutors will pursue hate-crime charges.
The South Carolina House last week passed a hate-crime bill 79 to 29, sending it to the Senate on the heels of vocal support from the business community. Unlike Arkansas’s, South Carolina’s legislation specifically allows heightened penalties for crimes motivated by race, sexual orientation and gender — though House members initially removed LGBTQ protections, then changed course after an outcry.
In the final state without a hate-crime law, Wyoming, a Republican-sponsored bill was tabled last month as lawmakers debated the details — “with the intent to look in greater depth at the issue,” as sponsor Pat Sweeney wrote later in the Casper Star Tribune.
Lawmakers tackling hate crimes are seeking better data on the problem. More than a dozen states, including Arkansas, do not mandate data collection on hate crimes, according to the Justice Department.
The bill headed to Hutchinson says crimes sentenced under it should be tracked and shared upon request with federal and other law enforcement agencies. Critics question the comprehensiveness of that data, given their qualms with the bill’s scope.
Hendren is already looking to the next legislative session — in 2023.
SB 622 is not everything he wanted, he said, but it’s a starting point.
“It’s progress,” he said, “and I think it’s going to be a lot easier to come back in two years and amend the law that has already passed then it would be to continue to start from ground zero.”