Arkansas has the opportunity in 2021 to adopt its first ever hate crime law — an idea the Legislature has rejected again and again under both Democratic and Republican leadership. It will have been 20 years since the first time lawmakers proposed — and failed to pass — legislation that would have increased penalties of offenses based on a how a victim identifies. Now, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, with support of the Governor and Attorney General, have proposed a new hate crime bill.
What is a hate crime? A hate crime is defined by the FBI as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the FBI has made it their responsibility to uphold the American people’s civil rights. The FBI also collects data that is mandated in the Hate Crimes Statistics Act.
Under the FBI Investigation Civil Rights Program, the Bureau investigates hundreds of hate crime cases yearly and helps identify and prevent these crimes through law enforcement training, public outreach, and partnerships with community groups. If the hate crime bill is passed in Arkansas, that would allow the FBI to better identify and prevent such crime within our state through community engagement, outreach, and training.
In 2001, Arkansas Senator Joyce Elliot proposed a bill, but the effort failed due to clergy members’ opposition to protections for sexual orientation. In 2017, Senator Greg Leding, then of the Arkansas House, introduced a bill, but it died in committee. Finally, in August 2019, Governor Asa Hutchinson called for a law after a white supremacist killed 22 people at a Walmart in Texas in an attack to terrorize Hispanic immigrants.
Fast forward to July 2020, Little Rock became the first city in Arkansas to unanimously pass an ordinance with increased penalties specifically for hate crimes. This will allow prosecutors in the city to charge a misdemeanor crime by presenting evidence that the crime was hate-based. The rule will also provide data collection to assure compliance with the Federal Hate Crime Statistics Act. Following behind Little Rock is the city of Fayetteville, which also passed a hate crime ordinance. The ordinance encourages city judges to consider a harsher penalty and ultimately deter people from committing such acts.
The 93rd General Assembly, which convenes in January 2021, is our best chance yet to join the 47 states that have passed similar legislation. Only South Carolina, Wyoming and Arkansas have no such law in the books. As noted in a previous AACF article, Arkansas also has one of the highest numbers of hate crime groups per capita. In fact, Southern Poverty Law tracked 15 hate groups just in the state of Arkansas.
For the FBI, hate crimes are the highest priority because of the negative impact on children, families, and communities. From research we know that hate crimes result in decreasing feelings of safety, security and self-esteem, and increased psychological distress. Where is the priority on our Arkansas state legislature’s agenda?
Stay tuned to help Arkansas Advocates push legislators for this long-overdue legislation. Sign up to receive our Action Alert emails and join our new Facebook Group, Arkansas’s Digital Advocates.