Senate Committee Blocks Hate Crimes Bill

The legislation sought to enhance penalties for offenses committed against someone because of certain attributes.

Senate Bill 3
Sen. Joyce Elliott presents Senate Bill 3 in committe Apr. 7, 2021.

Sponsors filed Senate Bill 3 in November and it finally made its debut in committee yesterday morning. Senator Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, led the discussion and after nearly two hours of deliberation, the Senate Judiciary Committee did not advance the bill. Elliott and lead sponsor Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Gravette, anticipated the outcome, but felt the conversation was warranted. Arkansas is one of only three states without hate crimes legislation.

“Something that somebody’s worked on for decades deserves to be heard and the people who are impacted most by these crimes deserve to be heard,” Hendren said. 

Elliott, a co-sponsor of SB 3, has worked to pass hate crimes legislation in Arkansas for two decades. In 2001, she supported a bill that received approval from the Senate, but stalled in a House committee. At the time, a group of clergy members took exception to the legislation’s protection of sexual orientation. The group offered to support the bill if that was removed and Elliott refused.

“That’s why we don’t have a hate crimes bill today,” she said. “It’s not because I was being stubborn. It’s because I believe we all matter equally.”

Yesterday’s discussion comes as Senate Bill 622, which is being called a class protection bill, is making its way through the legislature. A group of Republicans last week filed the bill, which received approval from the Senate yesterday and will be heard by the House Judiciary Committee this afternoon. Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, spoke in favor of SB 3 saying SB 622 does not do enough. 

“I know that I am fighting against the odds with this bill, but you gave us a placebo that made you feel better, but the dose is simply not strong enough,” Chesterfield said. 

One criticism of SB 622 is it does not specifically list groups that would be protected. SB 3 states it would enhance penalties for crimes committed against someone because of their race, religion or sexual orientation, among other things. Supporters of SB 622 say every class or group would be protected under the legislation.

“Why can’t we just give comfort to those who have been victimized by putting them in if we say they’re included anyway,” Hendren asked. 

Opponents of SB 3 argue explicitly mentioning specific groups excludes protection for those who are not listed. Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, used political affiliation as an example. 

“People are wearing MAGA hats and getting the tar beat out of them because they’re wearing a MAGA hat,” Ballinger said. “You may not agree with their philosophy, but the reality is a person shouldn’t be attacked because they share some social or political or whatever view.”

Hendren said he had no problem including political affiliation in his bill to address his colleague’s concern, but noted the bill covers everyone equally. 

“But it also tries to identify groups that have been traditionally targeted to the point of thousands per year specifically, to give them the message that we’re tired of it and we’re not going to tolerate it,” he said.

Family Council president Jerry Cox was the only member of the public to speak against the bill. The organization’s longtime opposition to such legislation is due to concerns about thought policing and unequal justice, Cox said. Hate crimes laws do not legislate hatred, but rather the action someone takes against a person because of that hatred, Elliott said. To be a hate crime, there must be a history and pattern of acts committed against an identifiable group, she said.

While the naming of specific attributes was a major point of contention for committee members, there are other differences between the two bills. SB 622 only addresses felonies and seeks to require offenders to serve at least 80 percent of their sentence. Critics also say vulnerable communities were not included in the drafting of this legislation. Hendren said he did negotiate with stakeholders in crafting SB 3, which seeks to enhance sentences for both misdemeanors and felonies. SB 3 also has a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, while SB 622 does not. 

“This bill gives us the opportunity to pass a piece of hate crimes legislation that is bipartisan and that the people who are most impacted and [will] continually be impacted by this year after year see as a real step forward,” Hendren said. 

Prior to a vote on the bill, Elliott asked lawmakers who think the country’s laws are equal and that everyone is treated equally to really listen to marginalized communities who speak out saying that isn’t the case. 

“If people keep telling you…my experience is not your experience, it is not equal, please don’t erase me because it’s not your experience,” she said.

Hendren made a motion to pass the bill, but did not receive a second. Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, made a do not pass motion, which received a second from Ballinger. The rare move, which Hendren said he’d only seen once during his 16 years in the Arkansas Legislature, would have kept the bill from being discussed again. The motion failed on a roll call vote.

Later in the afternoon, the full Senate voted to advance SB 622 by a vote of 22-7 with 5 voting present. The bill will be heard this afternoon by the House Judiciary Committee. Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed his support of the legislation to reporters during his weekly press briefing Tuesday.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and a Northwest Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts in Arkansas for nearly 15 years.