As of Wednesday, Georgia will no longer be on the short list of states that have no hate-crimes law on the books.
Flanked by a bipartisan collection of lawmakers, Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law the measure that strengthens penalties for those who are convicted of crimes committed against people based on characteristics such as race, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Kemp thanked lawmakers who were spurred to act after a video went viral in May that showed the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who had been followed by three white men in Glynn County.
“Today we stand together as Republicans and Democrats, Black and white, male and female, from rural, urban and suburban communities to affirm a simple but powerful model — Georgia is a state too great to hate,” he said. “It’s a sign of progress, and it’s a milestone worth applauding. Frankly, it’s the silver lining in these difficult times and stormy days.”
The event wasn’t without controversy. Protesters stood around the Capitol steps during the ceremony with signs urging Kemp to veto legislation the General Assembly passed the same day as the hate-crimes bill that would extend similar protections to law enforcement.
And markedly absent from the event was Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, who declined to attend due to the police-protection legislation.
“To see the Legislature prioritize (police protections) instead of repealing citizen’s arrest is heartbreaking and does not do justice for my son,” Cooper-Jones said, referring to another priority of the Georgia NAACP and other advocacy groups who pushed for hate-crimes legislation.
“Nothing we could say will alleviate the suffering of his mother, Ms. Wanda Cooper-Jones,” Ralston said. “But we can send the message that Georgia is better than what we saw on that awful, sickening, disgusting video.”
Georgia has been one of four states without a hate-crimes law. A 2000 hate-crimes law was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2004 for being “unconstitutionally vague.”
HB 426’s sponsor, House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee Chairman Chuck Efstration, said passing the legislation fixed a hole the state has had in its law since 2004.
“Offenses that are based upon bigotry, racism and hate can be called that under the law and punishments can be given appropriately,” the Dacula Republican said.
The new law gives sentencing guidelines for anyone convicted of targeting a victim based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability. The passage of HB 426 also marks the first time Georgia has passed a bill that protects the LGBTQ community.
If convicted of a felony or one of five misdemeanors — simple assault, simple battery, battery, criminal trespass or misdemeanor theft — and the crime is found to be motivated by hate, a judge could impose additional penalties.
Someone convicted of committing a hate crime would face an additional six to 12 months of incarceration for a misdemeanor or at least two years for a felony. He or she would also face a fine up to $5,000.
The bill also would mandate that law enforcement track instances of hate crimes. Supporters of hate-crimes legislation say tracking incidents is important to understand how pervasive bias-motivated offenses are in any community.
The journey from when the House passed HB 426 in March 2019 to the Legislature approving the measure was a long one.
As a compromise, the Senate approved House Bill 838. Under HB 838, anyone found guilty of committing a crime against a first responder — defined as a firefighter, paramedic or police officer — specifically because of his or her occupation would face between one and five years in prison and a fine up to $5,000.
The bill also would allow first responders to sue anyone who files a false complaint against them.
Passage of police protections kept the Georgia NAACP away from Friday’s ceremony, with the group releasing a statement saying it furthered “toxic divide” in the community.
“This compromise in the political process will forever ring throughout history as a signal that Black lives are a bargaining chip toward a political end and dead, Black bodies are an expendable commodity in the halls of legislative power,” Georgia NAACP President James Woodall said.
Acknowledging their disappointment with HB 838, Democratic lawmakers said they wanted to focus on the historic nature of the day.
“I am filled with joy and fulfillment,” said Democratic state Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus, the longest-serving member of the General Assembly and a co-sponsor of HB 426. “On this day, we stand before you as proud Georgians. And I am one that has seen a lot of legislative initiatives in my 46 years. The Ahmaud Arbery death will not be in vain.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.