‘It’s a bill that Arkansas desperately needs.’ Senator defends hate crime legislation draft released this week


FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Arkansas is one of only a few states without a hate crimes law, but a draft released this was proposed to change that. The bill has bipartisan support, but some legislators publicly expressed a hesitancy to back it.

“People think it’s thought police, or that it’s gonna criticize thought, and that’s just not the case,” said State Sen. Jim Hendren (R), who cowrote the bill with State Rep. Nicole Clowney (D).

The bill tacks on added sentencing or penalties for crimes that are determined to be motivated by hate. This includes purposeful crimes based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender affiliation, homelessness, disability or military service.

“When you take that to a criminal act, and it is motivated by hatred of a particular class, all it does then is allow for a 20% enhancement of the penalty,” Hendren said.

At this point, Arkansas is one of only three states without hate crimes legislation already enacted or with no definitive ratification plan. In the wake of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing being released via video, Georgia announced it would be the latest state to pass its own hate crime bill.

Still, some legislators publicly expressed concern at the bill’s current form.

Hendren said he expected some criticism, but he attributed most of the backlash on “confusion.”

“We’ve seen these efforts tried before,” Hendren said. “There are some groups that when you allow protections for things they disagree with, [they] are gonna be opposed to that.”

Many of the qualms Hendren said he’s heard aren’t based in reality.

“People think we’re gonna criminalize pastors preaching from the pulpit. Absolutely not,” Hendren said.

The bill in its current form contains a provision that penalizes people who falsely accuse someone of committing a hate crime, which is an added step to make the legislation balanced, Hendren said.

“There’s also in this bill a class-C felony if you falsely accuse somebody, knowingly accuse them of a hate crime,” Hendren said. “We don’t want it to be abused.”

The bill was officially announced Friday after days of public rumblings. It was supposed to be released several days before, but word-of-mouth knowledge about the bill circulated earlier than expected, sources within the legislature said, causing a delay.

Members of Arkansas’ Legislative Black Caucus felt they weren’t given an opportunity to play a larger role in writing the bill, sources said, and an effort was made to include them before it was publicly revealed.

“This is the legislative process,” Hendren said. “We have five or six months until we’ll be voting on this legislation in a special session.”

Sen. Joyce Elliot (D) is the Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, and she was listed among other writers in the draft publicly released Friday. A statement from her was listed in a press release on the senate’s website.

“To my colleagues in the legislature, think of your kids, your grandkids. They’re going to ask you what you did in this historic moment,” Elliot said. “As Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, I am proud that we stand in unanimous support of this proposal. Join us in moving forward with this bill, and help be a part of progress.”

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) also expressed support for hate crime legislation when asked about it in his daily COVID-19 news conference earlier in the week, and he reiterated that stance in a tweet following its public announcement.

“Very proud of the legislative effort on a hate crime law in Arkansas,” Hutchinson tweeted. “Texas has one & Georgia recently did so as well. This is the right step for Arkansas.”

Hutchinson is Hendren’s uncle. Political sources speculate the latter may run for the former’s seat when the governor’s term ends in 2022.

Hendren said the purpose of this bill is to send the “right message” and lead Arkansas into a new era with better race relations.

“It’s a bill that Arkansas desperately needs,” Hendren said

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