Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Stone Mountain, during debate in the 2019 session. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Georgia Senate Democrats pushing policing policy changes, hate-crimes law

Democratic members of the Georgia Senate on Thursday released a package of legislation they say the state should pursue to change the way the state handles policing — starting with passing hate-crimes legislation.

The package of bills calls for a wide array of additional changes, including regulating police body cameras, repealing the “stand your ground law” and banning police use of chokeholds.

A range of people including lawmakers, members of the business community and activists have increased their calls on the Georgia Senate to approve a bill that would enhance the penalty of those convicted of committing hate crimes.

The calls intensified after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was black and unarmed when he was followed and killed by three white men in the Brunswick area. One man is accused of calling Arbery an “f------ n-----” after shooting him. All three men have been charged with murder in Arbery’s killing.

“At the very top of our list is passing a meaningful hate crimes bill that will allow prosecutors and judges to pursue increased sentencing for those charged and convicted of hate crimes,” Senate Democratic Leader Steve Henson said. “House Bill 426 has been sitting in a Senate committee for months and we should bring it forward for debate.”

HB 426 was narrowly approved by the House last year and could be considered by the Georgia Senate when lawmakers return next week to complete the legislative session that was suspended in March to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Sponsored by state Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, HB 426 would provide sentencing guidelines for anyone convicted of targeting a victim based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability.

Supporters of HB 426 have asked the Senate to approve the legislation as is and send it to the governor’s desk. But Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan has said, while he supports passage of a hate-crimes bill, he believes the legislation needs to be stronger.

“We can do better than House Bill 426,” Duncan said Wednesday during an appearance on CNN. “I’ve been told by an African-American gentleman sitting in my office that House Bill 426, if passed, would be the weakest hate-crimes law in the country.”

Other proposals in the Senate Democrats’ package of legislation include restoring voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences, restricting the use of rubber bullets and creating a special prosecutor to handle cases involving police officers. Stone Mountain state Sen. Gloria Butler, chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said many of the proposals have been offered by lawmakers in the past.

“The vast majority of Democratic legislation has been sidelined and has not received a committee hearing,” Bulter said. “Too many of our citizens have died or been injured, while politics are at play. That time is over,” Butler said.

The announcement comes one week after House Democrats released a similar package of criminal justice legislation, focusing on repealing Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law.

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