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Why doesn't Georgia have a hate crime law?

Georgia is one of only four states without hate crime legislation

ATLANTA — The recent arrest of a teenager has some people wondering why Georgia is one of the few states in the nation without a hate crime law.

Last month, authorities in Gainesville arrested a 16-year-old, charging her with plotting an attack on Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It has renewed a push for hate crime legislation in Georgia.

Georgia is one of only four states without a hate crime law. 11Alive’s Why Guy questioned state lawmakers on both sides of the issue.

Related: Teen had plans to attack metro Atlanta church

In most states, a criminal can get extra jail time if an attack is motivated by hatred for the victim’s race, religion, or a variety of other reasons.

At one time, Georgia had a hate crime law. State legislators passed a bill in 2000 that forbid acts that targeted victims due to “bias or prejudice.” The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in 2004, ruling that it was too vague.

State Rep. Chuck Efstration is among the lawmakers who have authored House Bill 426 in another attempt to pass hate crime legislation in Georgia.

Related: After mass shootings, Georgia organizations push harder for state hate crime law.

“Hate Crimes legislation empowers law enforcement and prosecutors to seek enhanced sentencing in cases where the victim is targeted by the criminal act because of who the victim is,” says Efstration. “As a former felony prosecutor, I know that certain crimes are particularly heinous because the perpetrator is targeting the victim or trying to intimidate society at large simply because of who the victim is.”

Others believe a hate crime law would be bad policy for Georgia.

“Judges and juries already face an extremely challenging task determining guilt in a crime investigation,” says Rep. Wes Cantrell. “To now add the further requirement that judges and juries have to determine if the motive behind the crime is 'hate' will result in even further delays in our criminal system and even less justice than we currently hand out.”

The Anti-Defamation League is among those supporting hate crime legislation, but believes there are misunderstandings over how it would be applied.

“What we cannot do is say this bill only applies to African Americans, or it only applies to transgender,” says the ADL’s LaVita Tuff. “There’s data that supports there’s been hate crimes committed against Christians, hate crimes have been committed against men.”

Rep. Josh Bonner says there are already laws forbidding attacks on a person or their property.

“I’m opposed to any legislation that seeks to place one group above another and say that one is more valuable than another,” says Bonner.

He agrees with the sentiments expressed by Rep. Sheri Gilligan, who spoke on the House floor against HB 426.

“Hate crime laws destroy fifty years of striking for true equality before the law,” says Gilligan. “Hate crime laws have corrupted our legal system.”

Rep. Ginny Ehrhart believes hate crime legislation creates a “slippery slope.”

“I do not believe the State should be in the business of imposing stiffer punishment based on the thoughts and opinions of its citizens,” says Ehrhart. “We do not want an Orwelian legal system and there is no place for ‘thought police’ in a free society.”

Efstration argues that the law has nothing to do with thought.

“This law does not criminalize thought or speech, because an underlying crime must be committed for the enhanced penalty to be used,” says Efstration.

HB 426 passed the Georgia House during this year’s session and will be considered by the state senate when the legislature gathers again in January.

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