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Local leaders advocate bias crime legislation

BY Kaitlin Gebby - kgebby@wabashplaindealer.com

Recent changes to Indiana’s Senate Bill 12 on sentencing for bias crimes have leaders across the state speaking out in favor of a strong, inclusive bill.

Last week, lawmakers in the Indiana Senate passed SB 12 after an amendment eliminated a list of characteristics that included gender identity, sexual orientation and race. The amendment has leaders in education and economic development speaking out for a bill with strong, specific and protective language for marginalized groups.

Manchester University President David McFadden was one of 17 university presidents around the state to sign a letter addressing legislators’ move to alter the bill.

“We were deeply disappointed last week to see the Indiana Senate pass a bias crimes bill without the policy teeth it needs to be a real bias crimes law,” the letter states. “Senate Bill 12 does not meet the standard of a comprehensive bias crimes bill, nor does it meet the needs and expectations of more than 74 (percent) of Hoosiers who have voiced their support for meaningful action on this issue.”

Lawmakers advocating for changes in the bill said that while the amendment removes the list of specific groups, it would allow judges to look at bias crimes through a broader lens.

After a hate crime bill failed in the General Assembly last year, Indiana Forward solidified their message as a grassroots campaign dedicated to the representation of marginalized groups. The group coordinated the letter between university presidents to Speaker Brian Bosma, and they’re continuing to speak out in opposition to the bill in its current state.

Indiana Forward Campaign Co-chair David Sklar said the bill needs an “enumerated list” of groups in order for it to be effective in sentencings. But talking about it, he said, isn’t easy.

“It’s a very difficult conversation,” he said. “Obviously the bill is not in a form that we want to see it in right now. It’s an issue that we always knew we were going to have an uphill battle in front of us to wage, but I think that what the (Indiana Forward) campaign has done and the current state of our debate right now is that we are reaching legislators on a regular basis and we feel like we have some momentum.”

He said Indiana is on a list of five states that lack legislation against hate crimes, which not only hurts groups that would be protected by such a law, but also deters investors.

Lee Lewellen, president and CEO of the Indiana Economic Development Association, also sent a letter to the General Assembly following the changes to SB 12.

He said while leadership has boosted Indiana as one of the top states to open a business, being on a list of states without a hate crime law puts Indiana in a poor position.

“Indiana’s lack of meaningful hate crimes legislation keeps the state on a list that is a contradiction to our treasured sense of ‘Hoosier Hospitality’ and that burdens businesses and economic developers with an inability to attract what has become the most critical business asset in the 21st Century – a skilled workforce,” he said.

Sklar said being on that list “sends a message to the rest of the country.”

“(It says) we might have issues that are relevant to diversity and inclusion and with being a welcoming state,” he said.

As of March 4, Rep. Gregory Steuerwald (R-Avon) and Rep. Anthony Cook (R-Cicero) are sponsoring the bill in the House and it has had its first reading.