Why are Arkansas, South Carolina, Wyoming holding back on adopting hate crime laws?

Inertia on hate crimes in several state legislatures is prompting municipal leaders to initiate ordinances that punish those who commit crimes driven by prejudice. The recently passed hate crime law in Little Rock is the latest example.

Mayor Frank Scott Jr. said he hopes the comprehensive measure, adopted July 8, will push Arkansas’ legislature to finally adopt a hate crimes statute. Arkansas is one of only three states without laws to adequately prosecute offenders who target someone based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or other protected categories.

In South Carolina, where a white supremacist murdered nine African Americans inside Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, federal authorities charged the killer with hate crimes when the state could not.

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In Wyoming, where Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was beaten, tortured, and left to die, hate crimes are classified as misdemeanors. Shepard’s murder inspired an expansion of the federal hate crime law to include a victim’s perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

The U.S. House has adopted and Senate is considering the National Opposition to Hate, Assaults and Threats to Equality (NO HATE) Act, which aims to provide resources to adequately track and prosecute hate crimes in all 50 states.

The bipartisan bill would improve hate crime reporting with grants to empower state and local governments to train law enforcement, create reporting hotlines, direct resources to minority communities and conduct public educational forums. Local law enforcement agencies would be required to submit hate crimes data to the FBI.

But the NO HATE Act cannot take the place of state laws. Arkansas, South Carolina, and Wyoming need to join the other 47 states and distinguish crimes driven by prejudice and charge them as felonies. We must not wait until the next murder.

Unfortunately, so far, that has been the case. Earlier this summer, Georgia passed a hate crime law after Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black jogger, was fatally shot by two white men while another filmed the slaying.

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The Little Rock law also followed a horrific death. Trevone Miller was charged this month with capital murder in the death of Brayla Stone, a transgender teenager from North Little Rock.

The Little Rock ordinance covers what a comprehensive hate crime law should. It increases penalties specifically for crimes targeting people based on their race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. It aims, as the law states, to recognize that those offenses “strike special fear within victimized groups, fragment communities, and tear at the very fabric of our democratic way of life.”

Arkansas lawmakers have drafted a hate crime bill ahead of the 2021 legislative session. But previous measures failed to pass. Meanwhile, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the New Aryan Empire, and at least a dozen other extremist groups, call Arkansas home.

In South Carolina, where hate crime bills have stalled in the statehouse for years, FBI statistics showed 111 hate crimes reported in 2018, the most recent year of available data. The numbers are much lower in Wyoming. But a recent investigation by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has uncovered that anecdotal accounts of hate crimes contradict the low numbers because there is no incentive for agencies to keep track.

AJC’s landmark survey on antisemitism last year revealed that 75 percent of American Jews targeted by an antisemitic attack or remark didn’t report the incident. If they did, only 3 percent told police. The NO HATE Act offers the incentives and assurance to minority communities that concerns about their safety are counted on a national scale, which could encourage more reporting of incidents.

Fortunately, mayors and municipalities have tried to fill the void. Atlanta, as well as other cities and counties, had local ordinances on the books before the Georgia bill passed. South Carolina’s three largest cities – Greenville, Charleston, and Columbia – have citywide hate crime laws.

Not all hate crime laws are equal or adequate. Indiana and South Dakota laws don’t include the LGBTQ community as a protected category.

But Indiana’s law came just in time. On July 4, Vauhxx Booker, a civil rights activist, was seeking a spot along a southern Indiana lakefront to admire a lunar eclipse when he was accosted by two white men who pinned him against a tree, spat in his face, and shouted racial slurs. One of them wore a cowboy hat with a Confederate flag. The other threatened to get a noose. One of Booker’s friends caught the crime on video.

The FBI is investigating whether to charge the men with a hate crime. But even if they don’t, Indiana now has that option. Arkansas, Wyoming, and South Carolina need to catch up.

Dov Wilker is director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Atlanta Region.