ATLANTA — The Georgia General Assembly approved a hate crimes bill Tuesday after more than a decade without one in the state.
When the 2020 legislative session reconvened after a pandemic-induced hiatus, it was unclear if a hate crimes bill would pass under the Gold Dome. But by the afternoon on the 37th day — after weeks of jockeying between the House and Senate — lawmakers came to an agreement on one.
Praised as a “compromise,” lawmakers passed legislation establishing enhanced penalties for bias-motivated crimes that will now head to the governor’s desk.
The death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery — a Black man who was chased and shot by three white men —renewed calls for the Senate to take up House Bill 426 — bipartisan hate crimes legislation that had been sitting in the upper chamber since last session.
The legislation extends protections to people who are targeted on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, or physical or mental disability. It gives judges the ability to enhance criminal penalties for people convicted of a felony or one of a list of misdemeanors and was found to be motivated by hate.
The bill is now on its way to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk whose office said in a statement: “Governor Kemp commends the General Assembly’s bipartisan work and will sign House Bill 426 pending legal review.”
Both chambers overwhelmingly approved the measure — the Senate in a 47-6 vote and the House agreeing 127-38.
Hate crimes legislation garnered more support this year in both chambers — political leaders largely attributed the change to the graphic video of the shooting death of Arbery — who was unarmed and jogging through a Brunswick neighborhood.
House Speaker David Ralston pushed the Senate to move the bill out of committee, where it had been sitting for 470 days. Ralston made it clear that if hate crimes legislation did not pass this session, it would be a “stain on this state that we can never wash away.”
“There are very few times that members of the legislative body get called upon in a defining moment in history. But this is a defining moment for Georgia,” he said. “ ...Today, we have said that we will not be defined by a senseless act of evil and by the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.”
Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, who presented the bill in the Senate, said he used to look at the world and think racism was not a “common problem.”
“But maybe it’s more common than we wish. Maybe if we continue to sit idly by, it continues to grow and fester and be an infection on our society,” he said on the floor. “Maybe we engage today, in a bipartisan manner, and say ‘we want to make a statement that that’s not us. We don’t stand for that, we don’t tolerate that, we will no longer stand idly by silently and tolerate it. Because to do so is to implicitly support it.”
Cowsert authored a change that Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of late Monday night that would have included law enforcement in the list of “protected classes” in the hate crimes legislation. After uproar from bipartisan lawmakers who supported the original bill, the provision was tossed out.
The final bill gives additional penalties for anyone convicted of a felony or one of five misdemeanors — simple assault, simple battery, battery, criminal trespass and misdemeanor theft — that was motivated by hate. An individual convicted of a hate crime would face an additional six to 12 months for a misdemeanor or at least two years for a felony and a fine of up to $5,000.
In a new addition to the House-crafted legislation, law enforcement is now mandated to record and report hate crimes; both chambers agreed the requirement would help track where such crimes happen and understand what communities are most often affected.
After the governor signs the legislation into law, Georgia will no longer be one of four remaining states without a hate crimes law. In 2000, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the state law that was on the books for being “unconstitutionally vague.”
Cowsert said with video evidence circulating the globe, hate-motivated crimes can no longer be denied.
“That makes it an undeniable problem and an intolerable injustice that we can not continue to tolerate,” he said. “This law isn’t going to magically make everybody forget racial stereotypes or racial prejudices that some will continue to hold. But in this continuum of history, we’re evolving, we’re moving forward — moving forward together.”
In a statement provided by the Georgia NAACP, Wanda-Cooper Jones, Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, said she looks forward to being present when Kemp signs the law.
"My family thanks everyone for not letting my son's death be in vain,” she said. “I know he is still with us and this law is evidence of that.”
A long road
Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, dean of the House, led the longtime efforts to get the legislation passed — before videos of hate-crimes and police brutality shook the country into nationwide protests and spurred calls for action from the government.
“I’ve been in the House for 46 years and I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve had a lot of moments in my career but today is the finest,” said an emotional Smyre, who co-sponsored the bill along with Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula.
After not having left his home due to the pandemic, Smyre said, he drove four and a half hours to Brunswick to see Arbery’s family and attend a rally. After the legislation went through ups and downs for three years, when it finally passed, he said, he was relieved.
“It would have been a sad day in Georgia if we didn’t pass this hate crimes bill,” Smyre said.
On the Senate floor, dozens of lawmakers — both Republican and Democrat — explained why they supported the bill.
“At a time when our nation feels so divided, Georgia is bringing forth a moment of unity,” Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said.
Senate Minority Whip Harold Jones, D-Augusta, said lawmakers showed they can work on and pass bipartisan legislation.
“We are setting the stage that Georgia is continuing to move forward,” he said. “And that we have basically showed a model of what bipartisan legislation is all about. Because this was a hard lift.”
Lawmakers noted the eyes of Georgia residents were on lawmakers to take a legislative stance against hate crimes in the state.
“I know that there are many people around our state, I know there are definitely many people in our communities that are crying out for something to hold on to, crying out for us to take a stand,” Sen. P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville, said on the floor. “This bill is not going to end race, racism, it's not going to end prejudice. But it's important for us today to say — while our actions may not end these problems — what they do say is that we're going to take a stand against these issue.”
For others — it was personal.
Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, recounted an incident when she was 12. A group of young men harassed her as she stood on the street in front of her elementary school and Ebenezer Baptist Church. They called her expletives and threw a Coca-Cola bottle at her.
“I was too young to participate in the Civil Rights movement,” she said. “But I stood on the sidelines — I watched, I learned and I cheered on those who did fight for us.”
Rev. James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP, said in a statement the organization will continue working with the legislature so “the legacy of those murdered by dehumanizing violence won't be in vain.”
“We are grateful to Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov Geoff Duncan for working with the civil rights community to create a statute that protects Black Georgians from hateful bigotry,” he said.
Rep. Dexter Sharper, D-Valdosta, said the passage of the bill provides a way to move forward and address other issues like police reform.
"This has been long overdue and it gives us more unity, I would say, among the House and also working with the Senate," he said. "We're being proactive in Georgia and that's a good thing in the light of everything that's going on around the nation."