ATLANTA (CN) — Georgia’s lieutenant governor proposed a new version of a hate crimes law Wednesday, responding to pressure from business leaders, lawmakers and activists in the Peach State calling for criminal justice reform following the highly publicized deaths of several unarmed black men.
With just eight days left in the state’s current legislative session, Republican Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan unveiled his plan during a Wednesday morning press conference to make a hate crime in Georgia a standalone criminal charge rather than an enhancement to another crime.
“This is the right time and right place in Georgia to lead on this,” Duncan said. “We wouldn’t be the state we are today if it weren’t for the bold leadership of a few to bring on board the many. This is an awesome opportunity for Georgia to lead on this issue.”
Georgia is one of only four states in the country without a hate crimes law. A previous hate crimes statute was declared unconstitutional in 2004 by the Georgia Supreme Court.
In March 2019, the Georgia House narrowly passed House Bill 426, a measure which would have allowed harsher sentences for anyone convicted of targeting a victim based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, or mental or physical disability.
The legislation stalled in committee and the Senate did not hold a hearing on the bill.
On Wednesday, Duncan called HB 426 “a solid start” but noted that “a lot has changed since that original House bill was drafted.”
Duncan’s proposed bill would still impose penalties for crimes motivated by the factors listed in the House version but would also include protections for hate crimes based on age, ancestry, creed, culture, ethnicity, homelessness, sex, armed forces or National Guard veteran status, and having been involved in civil rights activities or having exercised the rights protected by the First Amendment.
If a prosecutor chooses not to convene a grand jury hearing for a hate crime charge, the bill would allow community members to file a warrant to force a grand jury hearing.
The bill also requires law enforcement officials to track hate crimes in a state database for the first time and provides civil recourse for victims who wish to seek damages and attorney fees from perpetrators.
The proposed legislation would make hate crimes punishable by one to five years in prison.
“This legislation sends a very clear and unified message to the world that Georgia will be one of the worst places to commit a hate crime in this country,” Duncan said Wednesday.
Demands for the original House bill’s passage intensified after video footage of the death of Ahmaud Arbery in coastal Georgia went viral in May. Arbery, a black man, was shot to death while jogging through a residential neighborhood.
During a hearing this month, the lead investigator in the case testified that one of Arbery’s accused killers, both white men, uttered a racial epithet after firing the gunshots that ended his life.
Public outcry for the passage of a hate crimes bill in Georgia has increased in the three weeks since continuous protests against police brutality and racial injustice enveloped communities around the country and state. The protests began after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The situation escalated in Georgia after Rayshard Brooks, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed during a confrontation with police outside a Wendy’s in southwest Atlanta.
The Georgia NAACP, which organized a march to the capitol building Monday to demand criminal justice reform, said it was not consulted by Duncan before he unveiled the new bill.
“During a time when people are literally dying, being murdered and lynched every single day, it is a shame knowing @GeoffDuncanGA nor anyone from his office ever reached out to ask for our input,” the organization tweeted Wednesday morning.
The state NAACP branch said the bill fails to address demands the group made based on input from community members who have seen their neighbors “murdered by law enforcement and racist vigilantes.”
“Creating a hate crime bill that increased the mandatory minimum by just two years is a waste of time and furthermore oppresses the advancement of African Americans in this state. We will continue to see [this] happen until white supremacy is completely abolished,” the Reverend James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP, said Wednesday.