House Committee Advances Class Protection Bill

Opponents argue the legislation is vague and doesn’t identify groups historically impacted by hate crimes.

The House Judiciary Committee yesterday approved Senate Bill 622, which is being defined as a class protection bill. After ruling the legislation passed on a close voice vote, chairwoman Rep. Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana, immediately adjourned and denied committee members’ request for a roll call vote. Dalby is a co-sponsor of SB 622, which now heads to the full House.

A group of Republicans filed SB 622 last week in response to the governor’s call to pass hate crimes legislation this session. Arkansas is one of three states without such a law. South Carolina and Wyoming are the other two. 

The bill is being offered as an alternative to SB 3, a hate crimes bill with bipartisan support that failed in committee Wednesday. House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, a primary sponsor of SB 622, presented the bill to committee members yesterday. Although the term hate crime is not used in the bill, the Republican from El Dorado urged lawmakers to judge the legislation based on its merits.

“Some will say it’s a hate crimes bill, some will say it’s not,” Shepherd said. “I think that illustrates the fact that does it really matter whether you can come up with a one or a two-word explanation to describe it? What really matters is what’s in the bill.” 

SB 622 creates penalties for false reporting to law enforcement, establishes a registry and requires a delayed release for certain offenders who select a victim because they were a member of or associated with a “recognizable and identifiable group or class.” 

The bill is comprehensive, doesn’t elevate one class over another and “virtually all, if not all” classes protected in hate crimes laws across the country would be protected under SB 622, Shepherd said. Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, takes issue with the bill protecting everyone.

“Not that we don’t want everyone protected, but creating a bill that does cover everybody ignores the fact that there’s been an increase in hangings, that there’s been a 51 percent increase in racial violence and racial hate crimes in the last year or two,” Flowers said. 

One of the biggest criticisms of SB 622 is that it does not enumerate specific groups that would be protected under the law. SB 3, on the other hand, explicitly stated a perpetrator could receive an enhanced sentence for attacking someone because of certain characteristics like race, religion or sexual orientation.

Although Speaker Shepherd said he understands the significance of identifying certain groups, he also said legislators wanted to err on the side of providing protection to more groups. This has the added benefit of allaying some concerns from individuals who are uncomfortable codifying certain protections for certain groups, he said.

“I just believe this is the right bill for us,” Shepherd said. “It’s a bill that we can pass, it’s a bill that we can put on the books and it’s a bill that we can say unequivocally protects groups or classes here in the state of Arkansas in a substantive way, in a serious way.”

The bill passed on a voice vote and is headed to the full House. The Arkansas House next convenes at 1 p.m. Monday.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.