ARKANSAS (KNWA) — Arkansas is one of four states in the country that doesn’t have a hate crime law in place. The governor is urging lawmakers to change that in the near future.
“We think that all humans should be able to feel and live a life without fear,” said founder of a local immigrant rights advocacy group, Mireya Reith. “And not feel that they’re going to be targeted because of how they look.”
A Mexican immigrant herself, Reith’s organization has worked closely with state lawmakers to pass hate crime laws.
“I can definitely affirm that Arkansas immigrants have been victims of hate crimes,” Reith said.
Hate crime laws are an issue Governor Asa Hutchinson spoke out about in August 2019.
“What we saw in Texas, it appears that someone traveled 300 miles across the state to target Hispanics,” Governor Hutchinson said. “That’s wrong.”
In August 2019, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius killed 22 people, in what was the deadliest mass shooting of 2019, at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Police say he published a manifesto with white nationalist and anti-immigrant ideas before the shooting.
“They ought to have an increased penalty because it does such violence to our society,” Hutchinson said. “We don’t want people targeted because of their religion, we don’t want them targeted because of who they are.”
“There’s a misconception that somehow hate crimes treat some crimes as being more important than others,” said State Senator Greg Leding of Fayetteville. “That’s not really what it is.”
Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Wyoming are the four states that don’t have hate crime laws in place. In 2017, Senator Leding tried to change that but did not get the support he needed to pass the legislation.
House Bill 2088 would have enhanced penalties for people who committed crimes against another based on the victim’s race, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
“There were questions of, why if a Hispanic person is murdered is that any more important than if I were murdered,” Leding said. “And it’s not that that murder is more important. But if someone murders a Hispanic person out of hate, then that whole community is terrorized.”
“Most hate crimes legislation across the country basically says that if you belong to this particular group, then your interests are protected at a higher capacity than some other person,” said State Senator Bob Ballinger of Berryville. “And that’s unfair.”
Ballinger said hate crime laws divide an already fractured country.
“In our society today, we have a real problem where we are segmented into groups,” Senator Ballinger said. “We’re not focused on being Americans, we’re not focused on being Arkansans, we’re not focused on being citizens of the community.”
“The bill would protect anybody,” Leding said. “Catholics, Blacks, gays, if someone commits a crime against you and it’s found to be out of hate, you would be protected by this law.”
Ballinger added that increasing someone’s prison sentence, as Leding’s bill suggested, won’t help the issue. Especially in a state he said incarcerates more people than almost any other.
“On my side of the aisle, we’ll execute them,” Ballinger said. “If you’re going to say, ‘Okay, it’s first-degree murder,’ how do you enhance that? You give them the death penalty.”
To Ballinger, government involvement would make the problem worse. Instead, Arkansans should work to stop hate crimes from happening in the first place.
“People need to start being nice to each other,” Ballinger said. “I know that seems simple and naive. But it’s true. if we quit looking at what divides us so much, we’ll realize there’s a lot out there that does unify us.”
To Reith, the solution to this systemic issue is a little more complicated.
“We hope and aspire like Senator Ballinger that there will be a day where we can all have these conversations and know that we can all have these conversations,” Reith said. “But that is not today.”