Georgia may soon take its name of the short list of states without a hate crime statute.
In 2019, the Georgia House of Representatives voted to approve a bill that would increase penalties for crimes committed against certain classes of people – otherwise known as ‘hate crime legislation.’ The bill never had a committee hearing in the Senate and was assumed to be ‘dead on arrival’ in the upper chamber, but the recently publicity surrounding the Ahmaud Arbery case has the measure back on the table.
Due to Georgia’s two-year legislative session terms, House Bill 426 – sponsored by State Representative Chuck Efstration – can still be considered when lawmakers return on June 11.
When passed in 2019, the measure had the bipartisan support of Republicans Deborah Silcox and Ron Stephens and Democrats Calvin Smyre, Karen Bennett, and Karla Drenner. It passed narrowly with a number of Republicans voting NO.
In light of the Arbery case, lawmakers are calling for the swift passage of the bill and the heads of both the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and Metro Atlanta Chamber have proclaimed their support for the changes to Georgia law. Governor Kemp also said he was open to the passage of the measure.
The measure seeks to toughen punishments for crimes committed “because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability, or physical disability of such” by creating a new code section, OCGA 17-10-17.
The proposal does not adjust the punishments for any particular crime, but instead allows for a prosecutor to seek additional penalties on the front end of a case, which would require the judge to sentence different upon conviction. specifically, a judge would be required to impose the following penalties for persons convicted of crimes committed because of real or perceived bias:
- Imprisonment for 3-12 months and a fine up to $5,000 for misdemeanor crimes
- Imprisonment for 6-12 months and a fine up to $5,000 for a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature
- Imprisonment of at least two years for felonies.
The judge would not be able to impose lesser penalties or use judicial discretion if the new law took effect and a it was determined a person committed a crime under one of the eight new classes. The prosecution, however, would be required to notify the defendant at the time of the indictment or accusation if hate crime enhanced penalties were to be sought, a notification requirement that is already part of the law under OCGA 17-10-18.
A similar bill passed out of the Senate and a House committee in 2018 but failed to make it to the House floor for a vote before the end of the legislative session.
Georgia is one of five states with no hate crime legislation, joining South Carolina, Arkansas, Wyoming, and Indiana. Opponents of hate crime legislation say the intent of a crime is sometimes difficult to prove and classifies individuals differently under the law. Supporters say increased penalties deter crimes.