A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers has signed on to a measure that would take Georgia off the list of the five states in the nation without a hate crimes law.
House Bill 426 would impose heightened penalties for crimes committed “because of the individual’s belief or perception” regarding the victim’s sexual orientation, gender, race, color, religion, national origin, mental disability or physical disability.
State Rep. Chuck Efstration (top photo), a Republican from Dacula who sponsored the legislation, said it’s time for a hate crimes law in Georgia.
“There are terrible crimes, motivated by bias and prejudice, which require a punishment that fits the crime,” he told Project Q Atlanta. “Georgia needs an anti-hate crime law on our books. This bill, brought with bipartisan support, will allow prosecutors to seek enhanced punishments in very heinous cases.”
“A broad coalition of legislators brought this bill to send a clear message that hate crimes will not be tolerated in Georgia,” he added.
If HB 426 becomes law, someone convicted of a crime motivated by bias would face between three months and a year in prison plus fines up to $5,000 for a misdemeanor, and at least two years in prison for a felony. The legislation enhances the penalties for misdemeanors, aggravated misdemeanors and felonies, and mandates that felony sentences not be suspended or probated.
Allison Padilla-Goodman, southeast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), called on the legislature to pass the bill.
“Hate crimes are different from ordinary criminal activity: the effects of hate crimes are felt well beyond the immediate victim,” she said in a press release. “Hate crimes are felt by entire communities, and when they are not adequately addressed, entire communities feel isolated, disenfranchised, unsafe and threatened.”
“It is time for Georgia to send a message to hate crime victims and all Georgians that we stand with them and we will make sure that bias-motivated crimes are handled responsibly,” she added.
HB 426 does not include gender identity as a protected category. But Shelley Rose, ADL’s deputy regional director, said the inclusion of “belief or perception” in the bill would allow it to cover transgender people.
“While the term ‘gender identity’ is not included, we believe this bill will cover gender identity hate crimes because the language in the bill refers to offenses committed because of someone’s belief or perception,” she told Project Q. “In fact, there is a recent attorney general opinion in Tennessee that concluded that gender includes gender identity.”
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery issued that opinion in early February.
“For purposes of the hate-crime enhancement, a crime committed against a person because that person manifests a gender that is different than his or her biological gender at birth — i.e. a crime committed against a person because he or she is transgender — is thus necessarily committed because of, at least in part, the person’s gender,” Slatery wrote.
'We have everyone at the same table'
State Rep. Matthew Wilson (second photo), a Democrat from Brookhaven who is one of the legislature’s five LGBTQ members, said that law enforcement backs the bill.
“Our law enforcement community has asked the General Assembly for hate crimes legislation going back nearly a decade, and the coalition that has come together for this bill this year have been working to get it passed into law,” he said.
Wilson added that because of the broad coalition supporting it, he thinks this bill has the best chance to pass of any previous hate crimes bill.
“We have everyone at the same table,” he said. “HB 426 is the product of the work of the Anti-Defamation League, the Legislative Black Caucus, Democrats, Republicans and the LGBTQ community all working on the same bill.”
HB 426 has nine co-sponsors, including seven Democrats: Wilson and Reps. Calvin Smyre of Columbus, Karen Bennett of Stone Mountain, Mike Wilensky of Dunwoody, Josh McLaurin of Sandy Springs, Scott Holcomb of Atlanta and Karla Drenner of Avondale Estates. Drenner is also one of the five LGBTQ members of the legislature.
Republican state Reps. Deborah Silcox of Sandy Springs and Ron Stephens of Savannah are also co-sponsors.
A hate crimes bill that would protect people based on sexual orientation and gender — but not gender identity — made it out of committee last year but failed to get a vote before the full House. That bill included language from a hate crimes measure introduced by state Rep. Meagan Hanson, a Brookhaven Republican who was ousted from her seat by Wilson last November.
Georgia passed a hate crimes law that did not include sexual orientation or gender identity in 2000, but the Georgia Supreme Court struck it down in 2004 for being “unconstitutionally vague.”