Indiana House adds hate crimes provision to drug bill

This March 20, 2019 file photo shows lawmakers debating a bill in the Indiana House of Representatives at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. ( Photo/Bryan Wells)
Mary Beth Schneider

INDIANAPOLIS (Statehouse File) — Hate crimes legislation took another step toward passage Monday as the Indiana House voted for an amendment that goes further than the Senate version but not as far as many supporters wanted.

Under the amendment to Senate Bill 198 adopted by the House, a judge could consider in sentencing whether the offense was committed with bias based on a victim’s or group’s “perceived characteristic, trait, belief, association or other attribute the court chooses to consider.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb had opposed the version that passed out of the Senate, saying it didn’t go far enough in getting Indiana off the list of five states with no hate crimes law. But he applauded the House version.

In a statement, Holcomb said: “I support and appreciate the action taken by the House today. This measure covers all forms of bias crimes and treats all people equally. Now we need to make sure we get to the finish line and move Indiana off the list of states without a bias crimes law.”

The Senate bill, SB 12, said a judge could consider bias without listing off any specifically protected classes. Business and university leaders, along with civil liberties groups, have argued the state should adopt the list originally included in SB 12 when it passed a Senate committee. That list was later stripped out by the full Senate. It included race, religion, age, national origin, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity and disability.

SB 12 had been expected to get a hearing in the House. Instead, Republicans who control the House avoided any public input on the issue by putting its preferred version into a bill already on the House floor rather than going through committee. And they did so by a voice vote, so there is no public record showing how each legislator voted on the amendment.

State Rep. Greg Steuerwald
State Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon (official photo)

The debate also was perfunctory.

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, offered the amendment to SB 198, a bill concerning drug offenses committed at penal institutions, which until Monday had drawn virtually no attention.

Without addressing why there was no public hearing on the issue, Steuerwald said he had discussed it with attorneys, judges, a constitutional law expert and others in crafting the language.

“The intent in this bill is to cover every form of hate and treat every form of hate the same,” he said. “Every form of hate you can imagine.”

“Nobody, nobody is left out of this bill,” Steuerwald said. “Nobody… This is the most comprehensive bias crimes bill we can do.”

House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, the only other person to speak on the measure, disagreed, saying that by not specifically including gender and sexual orientation, “it’s just not a comprehensive list.”

In a media availability minutes before the House voted on the measure, GiaQuinta and Rep. Greg Porter, an Indianapolis Democrat who has long been a champion of Indiana adopting a hate crimes law, argued that the wording in Steuerwald’s amendment wasn’t sufficient.

“It’s not just coming off the list [of states without a hate crimes law]. It’s coming off the list in a meaningful way, not just a check mark to get off the list,” Porter said. “We need to get off the list in the right way, not in a phantom-like way.”

He noted that the minority Democratic caucus has a majority of women. “We cannot exclude the women of our caucus in regards to this proposed legislation. That’s the bottom line,” Porter said. “We need to be inclusive.”

Asked about the process, which excluded the public from weighing in on the wording the House adopted, GiaQuinta said that “obviously by not taking testimony, hearing pros and cons of any bill, yeah, it looks to me like they’re trying to exclude the public.”

The conservative American Family Association of Indiana, which had opposed a list of classifications that included such things as gender identity and sexual orientation, applauded the House version.

“This is a big win and a step forwards for fairness for all, rather than justice for a select few,” executive director Micah Clark said in an e-mail to supporters. “The language amended into the bill by Rep. Greg Steuerwald affirms equal justice for all Hoosiers.”

The ACLU of Indiana disagreed, saying it “will not stand for a bias crimes law that does not explicitly list gender identity as a protected class.”

Katie Blair, director of advocacy and public policy for the civil liberties organization, said in a statement that “transgender people are disproportionately targeted with violence because of who they are. Last year was the most violent on record for trans people, with more murders than ever before, particularly affecting trans women of color.”

Blair said the purpose of listing classes in hate crimes laws “is to make sure that those who are targeted by discrimination and are most vulnerable are protected. Not to include gender identity is completely unacceptable.”

And, she added, “it is reprehensible that SB 198 passed in a voice vote, so as not to allow constituents the opportunity to hold their elected officials accountable.”

Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said the House Republicans had “undermined the legislative process, blocking citizens from exercising their right to shape public policy. The legislature was not designed to operate from behind closed doors.”

The bill now is ready for a final vote in the House. If it is approved as expected, the Senate will have to decide whether accept the changes — sending it then to Gov. Holcomb for his consideration — or to send it to conference committee, where members of the House and Senate would hash out a final version.

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