A crime committed against anyone is awful. A crime committed against someone out of hatred because of a perceived or actual characteristic of that person arguably makes the crime worse.
We believe legislation should be enacted to address bias-motivated crimes, which are crimes committed against a victim because of perceived or actual characteristics such as race, religion, national origin or sexual orientation, to ensure the protection of all Hoosiers and hold criminals accountable.
Recently, we filed legislation, Senate Bill 12, which would add a bias- or hate-motivated aggravator as the 12th circumstance a court could consider when determining a sentence.
There are a lot of questions surrounding bias crimes legislation, and we would like to help clarify any confusion.
First, we would like to discuss Indiana’s sentencing process. After a person is convicted of a crime, a judge considers the length of a sentence to assign within a minimum and a maximum. In statute, there is a list of 11 factors called aggravating circumstances, which can be used by a judge to increase a sentence up to the maximum. Examples of aggravators include whether the person who committed the crime is a habitual offender, whether the crime was committed in the presence of a child, or whether he or she violated a protective order. Our legislation would simply add one more aggravator to this list, which the judge could consider during sentencing.
Additionally, a question we often hear from our constituents about our bias crimes legislation is, “Is this legislation constitutional?” The answer is emphatically yes. In the 1993 Supreme Court case, Wisconsin v. Mitchell, the court unanimously declared bias crimes statutes are constitutional and do not limit free speech. This legislation would not affect our churches, the way we operate our businesses or how we live our daily lives. We are all free to think, believe and say what we want. Those rights are, and will always be, protected by the First Amendment. Only when those thoughts or beliefs result in criminal behavior would the law intervene, if passed.
A law like this would not be unprecedented. In Indiana, we regularly take motivation and intent into account in our criminal code. For instance, a mitigating circumstance allows a judge to reduce a sentence if there are substantial grounds to justify a crime. If we are willing to consider a criminal’s justification for a crime to reduce a sentence, surely we can use a criminal’s indefensible rationale of bigotry to increase a sentence.
Another common question we hear when talking about the scope of bias crimes is, “Aren’t we picking winners or losers, or providing special protection to certain groups?” The answer to this question is no. Each one of us has a race, religion (or lack thereof), national origin and sexual orientation. Under this bill, if you commit a crime because of a bias, your sentence would be increased. These characteristics, along with others included in our bill, were chosen because they are the most common factors on which bias crimes are committed. Our bill would also leave some leeway for a judge to consider other characteristics or factors not included in the bill.
We ask that Hoosiers investigate this issue before jumping to conclusions regarding bias crimes legislation. It has been said that this legislation would suppress freedom of speech. However, unless you are a criminal or intend to commit a bias-motivated crime, this legislation should not worry you. Passing this law would send a clear message that hatred and prejudice are not tolerated in Indiana and ensure our Hoosier values are upheld. Clarifying for our prosecutors and judges how they should address bias motivated crimes is simply good public policy.
Mike Bohacek is a Republican state senator from Michiana Shores. contact him at 800-382-9467 or or Senator.Bohacek@iga.in.gov. Ron Alting is a Republican state senator from Lafayette. Contact him at 800-382-9467 or Senator.Alting@iga.in.gov