- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Forty-five states have hate crime laws, but Indiana isn’t one of them.

Indiana was once a Ku Klux Klan stronghold and the Southern Poverty Law Center says there are 15 hate groups currently operating - which it defines as groups that “attack or malign an entire class of people” regardless of whether the group advocates for or engages in violence or other criminal activity. Efforts to add a hate crime designation to the criminal code have failed for years amid concerns that it would elevate one type of crime over others that could be equally brutal.

That could soon change. Two state senators - an urban Democrat a rural Republican - have co-authored a measure that would create a hate crime designation allowing for stiffer sentences by taking into account a victims’ “perceived or actual race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, disability, national origin, ancestry or sexual orientation.”

“I think it sends a very strong message to the people inside Indiana and the people outside Indiana that Hoosiers don’t hate,” said Sen. Susan Glick, R-LaGrange, who sponsored the bill with Earline Rogers, a Democrat from Gary.

The measure is up for consideration in the House after clearing the Senate and is gaining support at a time when lawmakers are under scrutiny for not passing civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Supporters of LGBT rights, including the state’s business establishment, pushed for protections based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Their efforts came after changes were made to a religious objections law signed last March after it drew widespread and negative attention to Indiana because some said it sanctioned discrimination against gay people.

Though gay rights legislation is dead for this session, supporters of the hate crimes bill note that crimes committed based on a person’s LGBT status are included in the bill.

“It’s really unfair for the state as a whole to be labeled as bigots because we are really not,” Glick said.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce testified in support of the bill, saying that while it doesn’t usually weigh in on criminal issues, Indiana’s reputation is at stake.

“It is of the upmost importance that the Indiana laws reflect protections to illustrate to the world that our state is welcoming state that embraces everybody,” Tim Brown, director of policy at the ICOC, said at the bill’s hearing.

Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Report magazine at the SPLC in Alabama, said recognizing hate crimes is a moral decision for the state after the recent issues.

“This hate crimes law takes a little bit off from last year when it looked like Indiana was going on an LGBT crusade,” Beirich said. “I think it’s a positive step.”

Like Indiana, the other states without hate crime laws are conservative: Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and Wyoming.

According to the Indiana State Police, there have been 45 to 55 incidents per year since 2011 that would have qualified as hate crimes. Those statistics include reports of intimidation, vandalism, arson, assault and murder. Indiana law requires all law enforcement agencies to report bias crimes.

But Beirich cautioned that standards fluctuate from state to state, which means the actual number of hate crimes committed could be higher. Of the 45 states with existing laws, only 17 include both gender identity and sexual orientation as a characteristic. Not having proper training can also hinder a law enforcement agency’s ability to recognize a hate crime, she said.

Bills previously proposed in the Indiana Legislature have attempted to require training or make hate crimes a separate crime altogether. This year’s bill deals just with the sentencing process.

Still not everyone is in favor of the idea, including the chairman of the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee.

“It doesn’t matter that you’re a poor person that’s been beat up, or a woman that’s been beat up, or what race you are that’s been beat up,” Rep. Thomas Washburne of Evansville told the AP in October. “It’s still the same crime.”

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This story has been altered to correct the spelling of Ku Klux Klan, which had been misspelled Klu Klux Klan.

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Online:

Senate bill 220 can be found at https://iga.in.gov/

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Follow Aric Chokey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aric_chokey

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