State behind curve on hate-crime law

Republicans in the General Assembly majority always have been skeptical of hate crimes legislation. As a result, we’re one of only five states without a law that enables a stronger penalty for crimes motivated by race, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability.

In the wake of violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, supporters of such a law are making a renewed effort and think they have a chance.

Even Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, a longtime critic of hate crimes law, seems to be reconsidering the issue, so perhaps its time to at least give advocates a serious listening to. Actually, Bosma points out, state law already allows a judge to consider a criminal’s motivation during sentencing. But he also acknowledged that it may be time to clarify the law.

“I think it’s time to label now what we have as hate crime legislation to dispel really the misconception that it cannot be considered by a judge in sentencing because it can be,” he said last week.

Indiana already has enhanced penalties based on things like the age of the victim, whether a weapon was used, whether the injury occurred in the commission of another crime. So labeling certain offenses a “hate crime” and adding onto the penalty if hate was a motivation wouldn’t be a stretch.

We hasten to add that such legislation is not going to make much of a difference in the real world. We have been among the skeptics of hate crimes law because it puts the state on tricky moral and philosophical ground to essentially be punishing people for what they think. And if someone is murdered, are they any less dead if it wasn’t because of hate?

But there can be a point at which it is useful to make a statement with the law.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Indiana is one of the 10 states in the nation with the most hate groups. The organization identified 26 hate groups operating in Indiana in 2016 — a 63 percent increase over the previous year.

Adjusting for the population, there are 3.9 hate groups for every 1 million state residents, one of the highest concentrations of such groups in the country. Many hate groups in the state operate in Indianapolis. The capital city is home to a KKK chapter, a neo-Nazi group, two black separatist organizations, and a racist skinhead organization called American Vikings. There are more than a dozen groups operating in the rest of the state.

That’s something we need to talk seriously about. Perhaps the debate over hate crimes legislation will start the ball rolling.

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