The Arkansas State Senate voted to pass Senate Bill (SB) 622 on Wednesday by a 22-7 vote, sending a slimmed-down version of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s long-awaited hate crimes legislation to the State House of Representatives for its consideration.
SB622, sponsored by State Sen. and Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey and cosponsored by State Rep. and Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, is something of a compromise between the governor and other republicans in the State Legislature on the hate crimes bill the governor marked as one of his legislative priorities during his State of the State Address to members of the State Legislature in January.
Notable for its lack of mention of the term “hate crime,” no sentence enhancements for defendants found guilty of committing a violent crime targeted against a protected group and the omission of a specific list of protected groups included in the bill’s language, SB622 requires defendants found guilty of committing a violent crime against a victim who was targeted due to their membership or association with an “identifiable group or class who share mental, physical, biological, cultural, political or religious beliefs or characteristics” to serve at least 80 percent of their prison sentence before being allowed to be considered for release.
At Monday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on SB622, Hickey defended the bill and declined to characterize it as a hate crimes bill, but said that the bill served the overall purpose of the governor’s proposed hate crimes legislation: to protect all Arkansans who are members of groups at-risk of being targeted for hate crimes.
A main topic of discussion on Monday centered on the protected groups included in SB622. With the bill’s language undeniably vague on what groups qualify for protection, committee members asked Hickey about specific groups that would be protected under the bill’s “identifiable group or class” terminology. State Sen. Jim Hendren, a critic of some of the bill’s contents, even proposed an amendment to add a list of protected groups into SB622’s language, including transgender and LGBTQ+ individuals. Hickey, however, pushed back on Hendren’s amendment and cited the concerns of unnamed state legislators who specifically asked that the bill’s language not identify specifically protected groups.
With no support from Hickey and other committee members, Hendren’s amendment, which State Sen. Trent Garner described as “hostile” and thrown in at the “eleventh hour,” the amendment to add specifically protected groups failed in committee.
At Wednesday’s vote, many of the same discussions regarding SB622 were rehashed on the floor of the Senate. Proponents of Hickey’s legislation supported the bill’s efforts to protect all Arkansans and pushed back on the need for a specific list of protected groups.
Opponents of SB622, however, many of whom were Democrats, spoke harshly on the bill.
“The [proposed] hate crimes bill went down in flames this morning,” State Sen. Linda Chesterfield said, identifying the bill as a “placebo” which provided a dose of medicine that was “inefficient.”
State Sen. Joyce Elliott also spoke against SB622 in a similar vein as Chesterfield.
“[SB622] cover[s] up what the real issues are,” Elliott said, pleading with the Senate to include a list of protected groups in SB622’s language.
Faulkner County State Sen. Jason Rapert spoke immediately following Elliott and praised the “attempt” the bill made at adequately protecting all Arkansans under the U.S. Constitution’s equal protections clause. Rapert also discussed his own personal experiences with threats of violence he received and asked the Senate chamber if what he experienced deserved to be considered as “hate.”
For his part, the governor signaled his support for SB622 despite its slimmer nature than what he introduced in January. In a statement released to the Log Cabin, the governor said the bill was a step forward the state desperately needed.
“I am very appreciative of the work of key legislative leaders in crafting a new bill that makes it clear that Arkansas will increase the prison time for anyone targeting another for a violent crime because of their race or other characteristic,” the governor said. “While this is not the bill that I had envisioned at the beginning of the session, it is a significant step forward in giving assurance that we are a state that values the diversity of our country. I particularly am grateful for the work of the Speaker and Pro Tempore who have come together to provide a path to get this important bill filed and hopefully passed.”
Despite opposition from both sides of the aisle, namely Democrats who felt the bill fell short of the governor’s ambitions and republicans who had concerns about the bill’s value and its ability to protect the rights of all Arkansans, SB622 passed on Wednesday with five senators voting present. The bill now heads to the State House for its hearings and ultimate consideration.