The Georgia House of Representatives voted Thursday to approve a bill that would increase penalties for crimes committed against certain classes of people.
State Representative Bill Werkheiser, who represents Tattnall, Evans, and a portion of Wayne County, voted against the measure. He joined a few other a Republicans in his dissent. The measure passed 96-64.
House Bill 426 is sponsored by State Representative Chuck Efstration and has the bipartisan support of Republicans Deborah Silcox and Ron Stephens and Democrats Calvin Smyre, Karen Bennett, and Karla Drenner. It passed narrowly, 96-64, with a number of Republicans voting NO.
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.
The bill now heads to the Senate.