LaPORTE – While State Sen. Mike Bohacek (R-Michiana Shores) and I certainly have been on opposite sides of various political issues over the years, if ever there was an issue on which Hoosier Democrats and Republicans ought to be able to “lay down arms” and join together, it’s his proposal for a badly needed bias crimes statute for our state.

While Indiana has had definitions of what constitutes “bias” on the books for years, there really hasn’t been a statute that gave prosecutors the tools to impose greater sanction on offenders. In fact, it’s become an embarrassment to the state’s economic development community that, as we pitch for new-age, high-tech job creators to locate here, Indiana is only one of five states without a bias crimes statute.

The proposal, to be co-sponsored by Sen. Bohacek and Sen. Ron Alting (R-Lafayette), finally provides tools to county prosecutors to add “bias” as an aggravating factor in sentencing individuals convicted of “trespass” or “intimidation” or any existing statute that might result from a hate crime. For example, Alting points to Indiana State Police statistics for his home town of Lafayette, where there were actually eight different hate crimes committed just in 2017.

Those on both sides of the aisle can agree that in order to recruit and retain talented employees from all over the world, Indiana must be seen as the open and tolerant place that we actually believe we are, rather than an intolerant, hate-filled state which we most certainly are not. The acts of a few demented racists or white nationalists or anti-Semites do not define Indiana which has rightfully prided itself on demonstrating “Hoosier Hospitality” for decades.

The proposed legislation is important in that it would require all law enforcement agencies to report bias-motivated crimes to the FBI and Indiana’s central repository for criminal history information at least twice a year. Bohacek and Alting also made the politically savvy move of including any kind of bias in their proposed legislation which means that if someone commits a crime against their victim because of actual or perceived characteristics like race, religion, sexual orientation or disability, but also if the victim is targeted over political affiliation or status as a law enforcement officer or military member, then that would qualify for protection under the proposed statute.

In other words, if a leftist extremist targeted a Trump supporter for trespass at their house or committed some form of battery on that individual because of their political views, then such an act would constitute a bias crime. Under the Bohacek/Alting formulation, it’s not just right wing extremists and haters that would be subject to the penalties of the bill, but anyone committing a crime against a person because of that person’s status whether as a police officer or even member of the military would have their sentence potentially increased because of violating the bias crimes statute.

This ought to appeal across the board to legislators in both parties. As the CEO of Genesys, Paul Segre, recently wrote urging adoption by Indiana of a bias crimes statute, employers these days “want the communities in which we live, work and do business to protect our employees, customers, partners and other community members against bigotry.” High-tech employers such as Genesys have found they grow and prosper by fostering a climate that encourages diversity in their workforce where differences are respected and that such “rich and open environments result in happier, more engaged employees and create more successful business relationships.”

No one can want Indiana to be viewed as a “backwater” that somehow tolerates hatred and bigotry whether it comes from the far right or the far left. The Bohacek/Alting legislation is much needed and sends a message around this nation and the world that “Hoosier Hospitality” is very real and is practiced every day by Hoosiers who believe in civility and tolerance toward their neighbors no matter the differences in race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual or political orientation.

Let’s hope for speedy passage in the 2019 General Assembly. 

Shaw Friedman is a LaPorte lawyer who previously served as Legal Counsel for the Indiana Democratic Party and is a longtime HPI columnist.