Speaker ups push for Georgia hate-crimes law, but bill faces hard road

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, right, said he’s “more committed to a hate-crimes law than ever” following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis. Ralston has urged the state Senate to pass a House bill as is. But Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan says he believes the legislation needs work, which could spell doom for the measure if it has to return to the House, where it passed in its current form in 2019 by a narrow margin. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

The effort to pass a Georgia hate-crimes bill got another push from one of the state’s top political leaders this weekend after civil unrest broke out in Atlanta and other cities across the nation following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, who was already pressing the state Senate to approve legislation that cleared his chamber last year, said Saturday that he is "more committed to a hate-crimes law than ever" following Floyd's death.

The legislation, however, faces a difficult path in the Senate, where it is currently stalled in committee.

Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, said it’s time to remove Georgia from the short list of states that does not have a hate-crimes law.

“Georgia is better than this, and we aren’t going to be an outlier on this issue,” Ralston said. “It would send such a strong message around the state and around the nation about where our values are.”

Ralston has called on the state Senate to pass House Bill 426 as is — any amendments to the measure could spell doom for the legislation, sending it back to the House where it won approval by a narrow margin.

But Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the head of the state Senate, said Friday that while he supports passage of a hate-crimes bill, he thinks HB 426 needs work.

“This is an important piece of legislation to get right,” Duncan said. “It is time to make it clear that Georgians will not stand for hate and violence.”

HB 426, sponsored by state Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, 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. If the measure became law, a person convicted of a crime and proved to have been motivated by bias would face an additional punishment ranging from three months to a year and a fine of up to $5,000 for a misdemeanor offense to at least two years in prison for a felony offense.

Duncan says that in addition to criminal penalties, the legislation should also include guidelines for victims of hate crimes to sue in court.

“Any meaningful discussion of bias crimes legislation must move beyond one-dimensional sentencing enhancement options,” Duncan said. “Victims should not be forced to solely depend on Georgia prosecutors to exercise subjective discretion and every option to empower victims to seek and obtain justice should be considered.”

The lieutenant governor also said he believes law enforcement needs to be trained to properly identify hate crimes.

“As we work through the legislation with the Senate Judiciary Committee, these are some of the specific details we will look to address,” he said.

But amending the bill to accommodate Duncan’s suggestions would send it back to the House, where HB 426 won passage in 2019 by a vote of 96-64 — it takes at least 91 votes to gain approval in the chamber.

“It was a very close vote in the House already,” Efstration said. “My concern about any amendment is that it might be difficult when it comes back to the House.”

Pressure was already building to pass the bill before Floyd’s death, spurred on by the killing of another unarmed black man in Georgia.

Ahmaud Arbery was fatally shot in February during a confrontation with a white father and son in Brunswick.

Shortly after that, Ralston increased his advocacy for HB 426. Gov. Brian Kemp has also indicated he’s receptive to the legislation.

Also supporting hate-crimes legislation are the state’s two most prominent business groups — the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce — which called last week on the General Assembly to pass a hate-crimes law that “aligns our state’s law with our values.”

Democrats have applauded the Republican embrace of hate-crimes statutes, but they say it should be part of a broader criminal justice overhaul. House Minority Leader Bob Trammell spelled out his priorities in a lengthy Facebook post.

Georgia lawmakers, he said, should repeal the state’s citizen’s arrest statute, which prosecutors initially cited in the death of Arbery to justify the decision not to charge the father-and-son duo filmed in the fatal confrontation.

Trammell also called on lawmakers to overhaul the state’s stand-your-ground laws to prevent residents from citing the rules when they “chase someone down and kill them.” And he said the state should encourage civilian review boards for police departments to review hiring, use of force and other complaints.

“Accountability is lacking, or is too slow, or is incomplete and unjustly insufficient,” Trammell wrote in the post that cited not only Floyd’s and Arbery’s deaths, but those of others including Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Trayvon Martin in Florida. “And when accountability comes in some form, if it comes at all, it comes only because it has been demanded over and over and over and over again.”

Staff reporter Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.

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