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Dave Williams - House bill potential death knell for hate crimes push

Supporters of stiffer penalties for criminals convicted of hate crimes have been working to get legislation back on the books since the Georgia Supreme Court overturned a previous law as unconstitutionally vague.

A new version of the bill designed to pass muster with the court made it through the Senate Judiciary Committee this year but failed to reach the floor for a vote.

The measure likely would face an uphill fight in the House, if it ever gets that far.

And now, there's a new threat on the House side in the form of a bill aimed at getting rid of all references to hate crimes left in Georgia law.

Essentially, the legislation would prohibit judge or juries from imposing additional penalties on defendants convicted of crimes motivated by prejudice.

"I strongly believe government shouldn't be policing speech or thought," said Rep. Clay Cox, R-Lilburn, who pre-filed the bill last month.

"The reason someone commits a crime is less important than the fact that they committed a crime and should be punished for it."

Forty-one states had hate crime laws on their books as of 2006, according to research compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The General Assembly passed one, too, in 2000 following an extensive and emotional debate.

But four years later, the state Supreme Court ruled that the law was too broad because it allowed stiffer penalties for defendants convicted of crimes involving "bias or prejudice."

The new bill introduced this year by Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who also sponsored the previous measure, goes beyond that language by specifically applying its provisions to criminals who choose their victims because of their "race, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or national origin."

Fort said he agrees with Cox that the government shouldn't be seeking to control speech or thoughts. But he said his bill is aimed at actions.

"I don't care what anyone says or thinks," Fort said. "But if you hurt someone or destroy property because someone is different, you ought to be punished."

After Fort's bill failed to move to the Senate floor, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle - the upper chamber's presiding officer - appointed a study committee to consider the legislation this summer and fall.

Fort, a member of the committee, said it has has some informative discussions during its two meetings thus far. But he questioned the need for more examination of legislation that's been percolating under the Gold Dome for years and should be well understood by now.

"I think any time people can learn more, it's a good thing," he said. "On the other hand, this has been one of the most vetted and debated bills of any I remember in my 11 years up here."

But Cox said there still appears to be some confusion surrounding the issue that his bill would clarify. He said police agencies in Georgia don't seem to understand that the state hasn't had a hate crimes law on the books since the Supreme Court ruling.

"I think everybody sees occasionally on the news where an arrest is made and the arresting officer says the person may be charged with a hate crime," he said. "This is really a housekeeping measure to clean that up."

But Fort said Cox's bill wouldn't be popular with voters. He cited polls conducted in 1999 and 2000, when the original bill was before the General Assembly, showing that 60 percent to 80 percent of Georgians wanted a hate crimes law.

During debates on the bill back then and more recently, its Republican opponents have argued that it would be wrong to impose one set of penalties for crimes involving certain categories of victims and lesser penalties in other instances.

But Fort said both the original legislation and the new bill have won support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Indeed, one of the most dramatic speeches in favor of the bill during the House debate in 2000 came from a Republican, former Rep. Dan Ponder of Donalsonville.

"It could not have come out of a Republican Judiciary Committee without Republican votes," Fort said of this year's bill. "The votes are there on the floor if it had been allowed to go there."

Dave Williams can be reached at dave.williams@rockdalecitizen.com.