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Push For Indiana Hate Crimes Law Unlikely To Yield Results


The Southern Poverty Law Center says more than 700 hate crimes have occurred since the election.

Reported incidents of vandalism and intimidation in Indiana are reigniting the conversation about the state’s lack of hate crimes legislation. But the renewed push for such laws is unlikely to result in change.

Bias-motivated Crimes Up Since Election

The atmosphere inside the MTI School of Knowledge in Indianapolis feels different since the election.

"It is alarming," says Spokesperson Henry Hane. "We hear a lot of cases around the country where people are being attacked just because they happen to be Muslims."

All of the roughly 250 students at the school are Muslim. Last month, someone sent them a threatening letter, warning Muslims to leave the country.

"We hear a lot of cases around the country where people are being attacked just because they happen to be Muslims."

"It was not directly to MTI, it was a letter that was mailed apparently with a return address of West Lafayette, Indiana but really from California that was sent out to different organizations throughout the country," Hane says.

The letter says President-elect Donald Trump will “do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.” The school is taking the threats seriously and beefing up security. But administrators say the incident illustrates a larger problem.

"We do need laws to be passed to make sure everybody’s protected," Hane says.

In the wake of the election, a Bean Blossom church was vandalized with hate speech. So was a transgender woman’s home in Lawrence County and countless public spaces.

According to FBI data, hate crimes in Indiana went up about 34 percent from 2014 to 2015. Over the past five years, 50 percent or more of the hate crimes that occurred in the state were motivated by race. But those numbers don't provide the entire picture. Most of Indiana's police aren't reporting hate crime incidents to the federal agency.

And while the FBI can investigate the incidents as hate crimes, they can’t be prosecuted that way at the state level. Indiana is just one of just five states that has no bias or hate crimes language on the books.

Hate Crimes Legislation Fails Repeatedly At Statehouse

Some lawmakers keep pushing for hate crimes legislation, most recently during the 2016 legislative session. A proposed bill would have allowed a judge to increase the penalty for a crime if it was motivated by factors such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion. But it didn’t even get a hearing in the house.

"I was running out of time," says Rep. Thomas Washburne, R-Evansville, who chaired the House committee that didn't hear the bill. "But I also was running into the problem of the difficulty of defining what protected classes should be if you ever went down that path."

State Senator Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, says he’ll introduce a proposal during the upcoming legislative session that would create an automatic enhancement for hate crimes, making misdemeanors felonies and raising each felony one level.

But Washburne says he doesn’t think hate crimes legislation is necessary. 

"It’s actually, I believe, the beginning of the potential politicizing of our judicial system."

"In Indiana we don’t view the crime from the perspective of why you did it," Washburne says. "We assume all crimes are generated by some hate at some level. It’s hard to imagine a crime of violence that doesn’t have some level of hate."

A religious policy organization called the Indiana Family Institute also opposes hate crimes laws.

President Curt Smith says prosecution of crimes should be limited to the facts.

"To try to get inside people’s heads, to define their motives, figure out intent, that can be hard," Smith says. "I think on one level people see this as can we do more to protect the LGBT community, but it’s actually I believe the beginning of the potential politicizing of our judicial system."

Opponents also argue hate crimes legislation provides special protections for certain groups, like the LGBTQ community, while leaving others out.

Legal Experts Say Opposition To Hate Crimes Laws Misinformed

Indiana University Law Professor Jeannine Bell says many of the arguments against hate crimes laws make it clear those opposed don't understand how the laws work.

"It doesn’t protect groups," Bell says. "So anyone with a race, anyone with a religion, anyone with sexual orientation, anyone with ethnicity. So, in other words, everyone is protected by hate crimes legislation and crimes are punished against bias on the basis of those categories for all groups."

Bell says there are some cases that are difficult to prosecute when there are no hate crimes laws at the state level.

"It is very hard to prosecute cross burnings as anything besides a misdemeanor, particularly if there is no damage," Bell says. "And often in the case of cross burnings the only thing that’s damaged is the burnt cross itself. So the individual who’s targeted by the violence suffers no property damage, so not possible to charge it under any existing arson statutes or other types of statutes that you think you could use."

The Indianapolis City Council passed a resolution condemning hate speech earlier this year, although it didn’t change any local laws. And change at the state level isn’t likely with a Republican supermajority during a busy budget year.

Senator Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, is proposing a bill of his own that would create sentencing enhancements – but only when criminals target off-duty police.

Experts say such a law wouldn’t be necessary if Indiana adopted hate crimes legislation.

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