The Anti-Defamation League, more than 20 coalition partners and top law enforcement leaders are standing behind an effort to push a hate-crimes bill through the Georgia General Assembly in an election year.
Freshman Rep. Meagan Hanson (R-Brookhaven) is sponsoring the legislation, announced at a Capitol press conference Wednesday, Jan. 3. She said the bill is a response to too-frequent incidents across the country and in Georgia, from the bomb threats against the Marcus JCC early in 2017 to the racial threats and epithets unleashed at an 8-year-old’s birthday party in Douglasville recently.
ADL Southeast Regional Director Allison Padilla-Goodman also mentioned swastikas being scratched into the side of the Center for Puppetry Arts and said a hate crime is committed every 90 minutes in the United States.
“This bill is about protecting and preserving individual liberty when the freedom of the individual is under assault by violence or threat of violence by a hate crime,” Hanson said.
Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), who is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and is retiring after this session, stood with members of the ADL-organized Coalition for a Hate-Free Georgia and other legislation supporters behind Hanson at the press conference. Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) was prominent in the crowd.
Democrats in recent years have proposed hate-crimes measures that have gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled legislature. Rep. Keisha Waites (D-Atlanta), who has left the House, introduced House Bill 492 last year, but it never got a committee hearing.
“Georgia is better than this, and it is time to show all Georgians and the nation that we take people’s identities seriously and protect them. We will not allow bias and bigotry to reign free, and we believe that everyone should be who they are without fear of violence,” Padilla-Goodman said.
Fulton County Deputy District Attorney Fani Willis said the legislation is nonpartisan and represents American and Georgia values. She said Georgia, the home of Martin Luther King Jr., taught the world that hate is not acceptable.
“One should never be targeted in our great state as a victim because of the skin tone G-d chose to cover them in, who they choose to love or for any infirmity, whether it be physical or mental,” Willis said.
Georgia is one of five states without a hate-crimes law, joining South Carolina, Arkansas, Indiana and Wyoming and making it a focus of the 50 States Against Hate initiative that the ADL announced in Atlanta in August 2015.
Georgia enacted such a law in 2000 with strong support from the Jewish community, but the state Supreme Court threw it out in 2004 for being too vague in defining a hate crime. Subsequent efforts to pass hate-crimes legislation foundered over the definitions and LGBTQ inclusion.
Besides the ADL, the Jewish organizations in the Coalition for a Hate-Free Georgia are American Jewish Committee, the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition, Bend the Arc, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta, the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon, the National Council of Jewish Women, SOJOURN and Tzedek Georgia. The coalition also includes LGBTQ, black, Latino, Muslim, Presbyterian, interfaith and social justice organizations.
“At least on a national scale, it feels like the right time, and it feels like there’s a lot of interesting momentum and interest from different parties,” Padilla-Goodman said. “I’m getting a lot of really great feedback from both sides of the aisle, so I’m optimistic.”
The Hanson legislation is based on the federal Shepard-Byrd hate-crimes law, Padilla-Goodman said. The ADL worked 11 years to get that measure through Congress in October 2009.
Like the federal law, the Georgia legislation has two major thrusts: to increase the penalties for any crimes motivated by bias based on the victim’s actual or perceived “race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, mental disability or physical disability” and to improve law enforcement handling and reporting of such crimes.
By comparison, the Waites bill, which remains on the table, enhances penalties only for certain violent crimes and does not address reporting of hate crimes.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan, who attended the press conference in support of the legislation, said the statistical tracking is important, as is the training for law enforcement on what constitutes a hate crime and how to investigate one to gain a conviction.
Hate crimes affect entire communities, not just individual victims, Keenan said. But when their importance is emphasized with law officers, he said, “the officers ask, ‘Well, if it needs to be a priority, then why doesn’t the state have a law?’ You wind up dancing around the issue.”
Hanson noted that only six police agencies in Georgia reported any hate crimes in 2016.
In a state of more than 10 million people, that statistic shows that something isn’t right about the handling of hate crimes, said lawyer Steve Pepper, who has lobbied the General Assembly for such legislation as the past chairman of the ADL’s Southeast Region.
The law enforcement officials at the press conference included Matt Alcoke, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Atlanta office; Frank Rontondo, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police; and Lou Dekmar, the LaGrange police chief and the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The international organization has led efforts against hate crimes for 20 years, established a model policy in 2016 for law enforcement agencies to identify and investigate such crimes, and is holding a summit in Washington at the end of January to create an action agenda for a multiphase, multiyear initiative to improve the response to and prevention of hate crimes.
“I want to encourage the legislature to swiftly pass this important bill,” Dekmar said.
Sen. David Shafer (R-Duluth), who is giving up his role as Senate president pro tem in the new legislative session as he runs for lieutenant governor, said everyone is against hate, but he wishes legislation could be crafted that protected everyone instead of specific classes.
The bill’s inclusion of gender identity and sexual orientation could make passage tougher. The legislation defines neither term; by contrast, the federal law defines gender identity as “actual or perceived gender-related characteristics.”
In her presentation at the press conference, Willis presented three Fulton cases since 2002 for which she wished a hate-crimes law covering sexual orientation had been in place.
Only in the most recent of those, in which Marquez Tolbert and Anthony Gooden were scalded by boiling water by Martin Blackwell in College Park in February 2016, was the punishment (40 years in prison) sufficient, Willis said.
Tolbert attended the press conference.
People who criticized Hanson during her 2016 election campaign over tweets about transgender people from 2011 and 2013 have questioned her sincerity in introducing legislation to protect LGBTQ people now, but she said she is passionate about hate crimes after taking an ADL class.
“I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m also a realist. I realize that we’re in an election year,” said Hanson, who likely faces a tough re-election fight herself. “But it’s a great time to get the conversation started at the very least, but I’ll be working with all my strength to make sure it gets out of committee and gets to the House floor, and then we’ll work from there.”
You can read the draft of the bill here.
You can urge the General Assembly to pass the legislation at this ADL petition page.