Arkansas hopes to put a hate crimes law on the books and end its status as one of three states without hate crimes legislation.
On Wednesday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the state attorney general and a group of bipartisan state legislators unveiled draft legislation to be considered next year when lawmakers convene for the next General Assembly session in January.
The proposal would increase penalties by no more than 20% for crimes where an offender targets a victim because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, homelessness or military service.
“We need to say clearly that Arkansas will not tolerate violence against anyone because of their race, their religion or because of who they are,” Hutchinson, a Republican, said Wednesday during a news conference at the state Capitol. “We are at the point in our history that we must hold to a greater degree of accountability those who target individuals because of where they were born, how they worship or how they choose to live.”
Arkansas already has a law that enhances penalties for crimes against police officers and first responders, but Wednesday’s proposal would build on that.
If there are multiple motives in the crime, the state would only be able to seek tougher punishment if the victim’s attributes were a “substantial factor.”
The legislation would also make it a Class C felony to falsely accuse someone of a hate crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
The bill would require the state attorney general to collect hate crime data and publish an annual report.
Lawmakers had announced the proposal in late June, and state Rep. Fred Love, the Democratic Minority Leader in the House, said in a statement then that the “situation unfolding this summer, and the death of George Floyd, have really shown us that we as a society are ready to move forward to a better future.”
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, said Wednesday that the lack of hate crime legislation is “a stain on our great state, and it sends the wrong message about who we are as a people.”
“It is past time that we do what is right,” Rutledge said, adding that this proposal is “much needed and long overdue.”
The Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott, said she had pushed for passage of a hate crimes law in 2001 when she was a House freshman, only to watch the bill fail from clergy opposition to it for including sexual orientation protections.
During Wednesday’s news conference, lawmakers didn’t gloss over the struggle ahead of them.
The Senate’s President Pro Tempore, Republican Sen. Jim Hendren, acknowledged that the General Assembly, which is led by Republicans, “has a long road ahead of us” and it will be a “difficult challenge” to get the bill passed.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, we know that this has been tried many times before. This will be a difficult effort, but I’m not sure there’s many more important challenges that we’ve taken on in Arkansas than what we need to do to pass hate crimes legislation,” Hendren said.
Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming are the only three remaining US states that do not have a hate crimes law and do not require collection of data on hate crimes. Georgia, a GOP-controlled state, has recently signed into law a hate crimes bill spurred by public outrage over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.
Five Republicans and 17 Democrats in the Arkansas General Assembly have sponsored the bill.
The bill also has the support of several companies, including Walmart and Tyson Foods, and the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce, whose president Randy Zook said Wednesday that “Arkansas needs to be open for business and growth and that includes protecting the individuals who need it the most.”