Georgia Governor Signs Hate-Crimes Bill Into Law

Protesters gather in front of the Georgia Capitol demanding criminal justice reform on June 15, 2020. (Courthouse News photo/Kayla Goggin)

ATLANTA (CN) — Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed Georgia’s new hate-crimes bill into law Friday after state lawmakers passed the measure in a historic vote three days earlier, finally removing Georgia from a list of only four states without a hate-crimes law on their books.

The new law mandates additional criminal sentencing penalties for perpetrators convicted of targeting their victims on the basis of race, color, gender, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, or physical or mental disability.

Kemp signed House Bill 426 during a ceremony Friday afternoon at the state Capitol.

Georgia’s previous hate-crimes law was struck down as “unconstitutionally vague” by the state Supreme Court in 2004.

“It’s a sign of progress and it’s a milestone worth applauding,” Kemp said Friday. “House Bill 426 is a tool to enhance public safety and ensure that justice is served. Frankly, it’s the silver lining in these difficult times and stormy days.”

Kemp admitted that the bill “does not fix every problem or right every wrong” but said it is “a powerful step forward.”

Georgia Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan called the bill’s passage “definitely the proudest moment I’ve had in elected office.”

The bill passed in a 47-6 vote in the Georgia Senate and a 127-38 vote in the House Tuesday.

A version of the bill originally passed the Georgia House in March 2019 but stalled in a Senate committee. Demands for the bill’s passage were renewed after a video of the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, at the hands of three white men went viral in May.

The three men, including a retired police officer, were indicted on murder charges in connection with Arbery’s death Wednesday.

During a hearing earlier this month, an investigator in the Arbery case testified that one of his accused killers uttered a racial slur after shooting him.

Kemp called Arbery’s death a “horrific, hate-filled act of violence” Friday.

The new law requires that defendants who are proven to have committed a hate crime face an additional six to 12 months imprisonment for a misdemeanor or more than two years for a felony.

The law also requires law enforcement to track instances of hate crimes in a database.

H.B. 426’s bipartisan passage was briefly stymied by state Senate Republicans who tried to introduce language into the proposal that would have extended hate-crime protections to police officers and first responders.

The legislature passed House Bill 838 as a compromise between Republican and Democratic leaders. The bill imposes enhanced penalties on offenders convicted of committing a crime against a police officer, firefighter or first responders on the basis of their occupation.

Civil rights groups, including the Georgia NAACP and the ACLU of Georgia, have strongly opposed the passage of H.B. 838.

In a statement released Friday, the Georgia NAACP called H.B. 838 “a dangerous bill that would further create a toxic divide in our state while further fueling the criminalization and violence against black people.”

“Though we stand in full support of all law enforcement, we believe that H.B. 838 is more dangerous to our community than H.B. 426 is good. To see the legislature prioritize H.B. 838 instead of repealing citizens arrest is heartbreaking and does not do justice for my son,” Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, said in the statement.

The new hate-crimes law will go into effect July 1.

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