Indiana residents hoping for progress on hate crime legislation will have to wait until next year for results. Despite Governor Eric Holcomb’s support of such legislation, Indiana lawmakers could not agree on the wording of Senate Bill 418 earlier this year, which would have given judges the option to impose longer sentences for crimes motivated by hate towards marginalized groups.
This is not the first time a hate crimes bill has been proposed and subsequently cut.
This summer, Goshen College President Rebecca Stoltzfus signed a letter supporting hate crimes legislation in Indiana, which is one of only five states that has no hate crime legislation. 23 other college presidents also signed the letter, which supports Eric Holcomb’s recent statements with regards to hate crime laws.
“No law can stop evil,” Governor Holcomb said. “But we should be clear that our state stands with the victims and their voices will not be silenced.”
According to a poll run by Indianapolis newspaper the IndyStar, nearly two-thirds of Hoosiers agree that it is time Indiana pass a hate crimes law. With growing support for the cause, Indiana residents have begun to speak their minds on the issue.
On Oct. 10, two Goshen College students, Rachael Klink, a junior, and Christi Sessa, a senior, went with GC Community Impact Coordinator Richard Aguirre to testify at a meeting of the Indiana Legislature Interim Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code in Indianapolis. Klink and Sessa were the only student representatives to testify, and Aguirre was one of only two Indiana college faculty members to testify.
Aguirre gave his statement first. In his testimony, Aguirre cited the rising number of hate crimes in Indiana in recent years. According to FBI statistics, reported hate crimes in Indiana rose 23.8% between 2015 and 2016.
There were 78 reported incidents in Indiana in 2016, more than 28 states. However, because those statistics come from voluntary reporting by local law enforcement agencies and many large cities failed to give any data, the numbers are likely higher.
Aguirre also addressed the fear that those who oppose a hate crimes law say is holding them back: infringement on First Amendment rights.
“Hate crime laws don’t punish…name-calling, verbal abuse, or expression of hatred toward any group,” Aguirre said. “It’s only a hate crime when a person crosses the line from speech to unlawful acts. Assaults, vandalism and threats to kill or hurt people aren’t protected by the First Amendment.”
Sessa and Klink then gave their testimonies. Sessa spoke about the experiences of LGBTQ+ students at Goshen College, who have faced name-calling, slurs, threats, and stalking both on and off campus.
Sessa also voiced concern that, without clearly worded legislation, it falls to the individual biases of Indiana judges to determine whether a crime is bias-motivated or not. Many people in marginalized groups find this to be a threatening prospect.
Klink testified about her experiences as a woman of color. She described how she faced racial slurs from a young age and how she has been physically assaulted and threatened since coming to Indiana for college.
Klink pointed out that there are many black conservatives who feel alienated by the stance that certain white Republicans have taken by opposing the hate crimes law.
The hate crimes law will be put forward again in 2019. Aguirre will be organizing a support effort with the Goshen College community. The first opportunity to have your voice heard is Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. at a meeting of the Goshen City Council, where a resolution written by Mayor Jeremy Stutsman to support the hate crime law will be discussed. Anyone can attend the meeting at the Police-Court Building and make statements of support.
In January, Aguirre will be looking for help with coordinating calls and letters to legislators, taking students to the state capitol to testify, arranging individual or group meetings with legislators and organizing a community forum on this issue.
Students, faculty, staff and alumni who would like to learn more and get involved should directly contact Aguirre.