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What some legislators want to do to punish hate crimes in wake of foiled attack in Gainesville
Georgia's state Capitol in Atlanta. - photo by Associated Press

Rep. Karen Bennett wants Georgia to “say no to hate.”

The Stone Mountain Democrat, who is also the Georgia Black Legislative Caucus chairwoman, said her organization will encourage the state Senate to pass a bill regarding hate crimes.

The caucus announced the push in the wake of a foiled attack allegedly planned by a white 16-year-old Gainesville High School student last month against Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“I’m hoping that my colleagues will be more sensitive and recognize that this is an issue that needs attention,” Bennett said.

House Bill 426 was passed by the state House of Representatives in March and then stalled. 

The bill would increase punishments when it is proven in court “beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally selected any victim or group of victims or any property as the object of the offense because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability, or physical disability of such victim or group of victims.”

If it’s a misdemeanor, it’s a minimum of three months imprisonment and a maximum $5,000 fine. A felony would require at least two years imprisonment.

Authorities said the Gainesville girl had a notebook with “detailed plans to commit murder” at the church, and Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish, commenting on the contents of that notebook, said she is a racist.

Elsewhere in the state, swastikas have showed up on university campuses.

The University of Georgia says it has received “corroborated information" that a visitor to its Athens campus was responsible for swastikas on student doors at a dorm.

The university said in a statement Friday that the person was not affiliated with the school. It said additional information would be available next week upon the conclusion of an investigation.

Two students at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville also reported to campus officials that a swastika was drawn on the doors of their residence hall recently.

Federal officials in October found that religious-based hate crime on college campuses has increased significantly nationwide over the past decade.

Georgia is one of only four states — along with South Carolina, Wyoming and Arkansas — without an official hate crimes law. The state Supreme Court overturned a previous law in 2004, and bills that would have brought Georgia in line with federal law failed to pass over the past two legislative sessions.

In 2004, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down a 2000 hate crimes law, saying it was “unconstitutionally vague” and so broad that it would even apply to a rabid sports fan picking on somebody wearing a rival team’s cap.

“The incident in Gainesville is extremely disturbing and unfortunate, and we as a society and a community need to do all we can to protect all of our citizens,” said state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville.

Miller did not comment specifically on the bill.

Bennett said she felt the new version did a better job defining the class of protected people to avoid the vagueness issue.

The representative said she feels having hate crime legislation on the books will lead to better tracking and recordkeeping regarding incidences.

“Without the legislation, there is no compulsion to track incidences,” Bennett said.

Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard said the offenders may not be able to pay an increased fine in misdemeanor cases.

"If you're spending more time in jail, the possibility of getting that financial fine to the county ... is not necessarily realistic in a misdemeanor,” she said.

In her experience, Woodard said prosecutors have not been interested in generating fines as part of their work.

"Especially in Hall County State Court and Superior Court, in my experience (they) have been very focused on rehabilitation and meaningful reentry into the community,” she said.

Proving a hate crime would involve proving motivation, which is not required in misdemeanor cases and only needed in some felony cases.

"The prosecuting community has absolutely recognized the added level of volatility, vulnerability and public disdain for crimes that are borne out of prejudice towards protected classes," Woodard said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.