Georgia Legislature Passes Bipartisan Hate Crimes Bill

A new mural of Ahmaud Arbery is on display May 17 in Brunswick, Ga., where the 25-year-old man was shot and killed in February. It was painted by Miami artist Marvin Weeks. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan)

ATLANTA (CN) — Georgia lawmakers approved a new hate crimes bill Tuesday afternoon that, if signed by Republican Governor Brian Kemp, would finally add the Peach State to a list of 46 other states with hate crimes legislation currently on their books.

House Bill 426 would mandate additional sentencing penalties for defendants convicted of targeting a victim based on their color, religion, race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, or physical or mental disability.

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

The bill passed the Georgia House in March 2019 but stalled in committee. It was finally approved Tuesday by the Georgia Senate in a 47-6 vote, followed by a 127-38 House vote.

The new law would require 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 bill also requires law enforcement to track instances of hate crimes in a database.

An amendment added to the bill by state Senate Republicans that would have extended hate crime protections to police and first responders was stricken in a compromise with Democrats. Some protections for law enforcement instead were included in House Bill 838, which also passed Tuesday.

H.B. 838 mandates additional punishments for offenders who commit hate crimes against police, first responders, and firefighters based on their jobs.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Kemp said he “commends the General Assembly’s bipartisan work” and plans to sign H.B. 426 “pending legal review.”

There was renewed interest in the bill after a video of the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was killed by armed white men while jogging on Feb. 23, went viral in May.

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

The public outcry about racial injustice that followed Arbery’s death increased after protests began in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis. Protests against police brutality and racial injustice have continued across the state and throughout the country for four weeks.

Tensions escalated again in Georgia after the death of Rayshard Brooks, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed during a confrontation with two white police officers outside a Wendy’s restaurant in Atlanta.

The bill’s passage came on the same day mourners packed the pews at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for Brooks’ funeral.

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, expressed her approval of the bill’s passage in a statement released by the Georgia NAACP.

“My family thanks everyone for not letting my son’s death be in vain. I know he is still with us and this law is evidence of that and I look forward to being present when it is signed,” Cooper-Jones said.

The Democratic Party of Georgia applauded the “tireless work from advocates across Georgia” in pushing the bill forward but remained critical of lawmakers’ slow steps toward criminal justice reform.

“We are thrilled that this law has finally passed after years of advocacy, but let’s be clear: we will not forget that this bill only came to light after 14 years of delays under Republican leadership, the murder of black men before our eyes, and the pain of marginalized communities across our state,” Democratic Party of Georgia Chairwoman Nikema Williams said.

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