MARY SCHUERMANN KUHLMAN
INDIANAPOLIS – New research examines the complexities of crafting effective hate-crimes legislation.
Senate Bill 12 in Indiana, now in the hands of a House committee, would allow a court to consider bias in imposing a criminal sentence. After examining data on bias-motivated homicides in the U.S. over 26 years, researchers from Indiana University say fewer than one-third were charged as bias crimes.
The Director of the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute, Breanca Merritt, says they also found a much higher probability of hate-crime prosecutions for homicides with an anti-religion bias – than those for sexual orientation, gender identity, race or ethnicity.
“What we like to see ideally is, with any kind of outcome, we like to see equal outcomes across all groups,” says Merritt. “And that was not the case for the data that were analyzed for this report.”
The report says prosecutors were more likely to pursue bias charges when there’s an existing bias-crimes statute. But even in states with specific victim groups listed, charges were not sought in more than half of bias-related homicides.
Senate Bill 12 was passed after such a list was removed, which critics say gutted the bill. Supporters argue it will allow all hate crimes to be considered without excluding any particular group.
Merritt explains research is still unclear on whether existing bias-crime statutes deter such crimes, or protect marginalized groups. And the protections vary among the 45 states that have hate-crimes laws.
“Some of them are race/ethnicity; in other states, they have things like the homeless are protected as a protected class,” says Merritt. “So, there’s a huge variation in who those groups are and the extent to which they should be protected.”
Merritt is hopeful lawmakers consider the policy implications of the research as they debate bias-crime legislation.
“The clearer you are in your intent behind the policy, the better the outcomes are going to be in terms of if they actually do what the policy intends for it to do,” says Merritt. “One of the big takeaways is that as they are developing this legislation, they can be really clear and kind of on the same page about what they want this to produce.”
The research recommends bias-crimes charges be pursued on an equitable basis to ensure equal protection for victims groups, and that statues include continued assessment and data collection to better inform policymakers long-term.