SC’s hate crimes bill won’t become law this year, making its future uncertain

·5 min read

The South Carolina hate crimes bill was left on the Senate floor as the Legislature finished their work session for this year.

The bill — which would provide enhanced penalties for certain violent crimes committed against someone based on their actual or perceived age, political opinion, race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender, national origin or physical or mental disability — may be taken up during next year’s session, which begins in January.

The bill calls for advanced penalties only on violent crimes, such as murder, assault, armed robbery or criminal sexual misconduct. Penalties could be increased by up to five years imprisonment and an additional fine of up to $10,000.

South Carolina doesn’t currently have its own hate crimes law. Instead, prosecutors must rely on their federal counterparts to pursue hate crime charges under the federal hate crimes law, but that rarely happens except in the case of high-profile crimes.

S.C. Sen. Shane Massey, the Senate majority leader, said there wasn’t enough political will in the Senate to pass the bill this year.

“There’s considerable opposition to the bill,” Massey said, though he would not elaborate, saying he didn’t want to speak for other senators.

Massey, R-Edgefield, said he would not vote for a hate crimes bill. He said he feels the South Carolina criminal justice system is strong and capable of prosecuting crimes without a hate crimes law.

“I think it’s feel good,” Massey said. “I think it actually may make things worse because it leads people to believe there are certain protections in place when there really are none.”

Massey said he felt that there was a rush to pass the bill just to say the state did something.

“I think trying to rush something through without having sufficient conversation and debate is a real problem,” Massey said.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster echoed concerns about the bill during a press conference with reporters Thursday. He said he’s been examining other state’s laws, and has yet to form a hard stance on the bill as it was passed by the House.

“When you pass laws, what you want to do is pass good laws,” McMaster said.

House Speaker Jay Lucas said it was “shocking” that the Senate didn’t give more consideration to the bill. He called the hate crimes bill passed by the House “a very reasonable bill.”

Proponents of the bill decried the Senate’s failure to pass the bill.

“It’s disappointing to say the least,” S.C. Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, said. “I was hoping there would be at least a floor debate on it so that we could see what issues any opponents might have.”

Bernstein, a co-sponsor of the bill who has worked during recent years to pass hate crimes legislation, said she was concerned South Carolina would be the last state to have a hate crimes law on the books.

“That saddens me because that’s not reflective of the state,” Bernstein said.

Business leaders and heads of chambers of commerce across the state gathered at the State House Thursday afternoon to thank lawmakers for the work they had done to get the bill to the Senate floor, but urged lawmakers to push the bill past the finish line. Business leaders said the bill is essential to sending a message to workers that South Carolina cares about protecting people from all walks of life.

“Why in the world would we miss this golden opportunity to send a message to the rest of the world that in fact we are the welcoming people that we know ourselves to be as we compete for talent to fill the jobs of the future that will help keep South Carolina moving forward,” S.C. Chamber of Commerce President Bob Morgan said.

Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce President Bryan Derreberry said the state’s “inability to protect all of our citizens is an economic and talent development liability.”

“There’s an overwhelming support from the state’s business community, and those engaged voices, many of whom are joining us this afternoon, helped move the bill this far,” Derreberry said. “The hate crimes bill is integral to maintaining South Carolina’s reputation as one of the best states in the nation for business quality of life and future prosperity.”

Business leaders called on South Carolinians to contact their senators and urge them to vote for the bill come January.

At the start of the legislative year, only three states — South Carolina, Arkansas and Wyoming — did not have a hate crimes law.

Arkansas passed a bill in April, but it has been widely criticized because it does not add additional penalties for crimes committed on the basis of hate. Instead, the Arkansas law requires offenders to serve 80% of their sentence for committing a violent felony against a person because of their “mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics.” Race, sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in the bill.

A hate crimes bill was introduced in Wyoming, but lawmakers voted to table it in March.

Bernstein hoped the summer would provide South Carolina lawmakers a chance to strengthen the bill. Democrats, including Bernstein, were particularly disappointed earlier this year when provisions that would have allowed increased penalties for stalking, harassment and property damage were removed from the bill. Democrats said those changes removed most of the teeth from the legislation, as most hate crimes committed fall under those categories.

While the hate crimes bill struggled in the Senate, it received broad support in the House. When the bill hit the House floor, there was no debate, and it was passed by a vote of 79-29.

Conservatives lent their support to the initiative after dozens of businesses called on lawmakers to pass it, saying it would create a better environment for doing business in the state. Businesses were pushed to action by the Black Lives Matter protests that exploded across the country last summer.

In the Senate, the hate crimes bill has only been advanced by very narrow margins. In subcommittee, it passed by a vote of 3-2, and in committee, it passed by a vote of 13-10.

But there wasn’t enough will in the Senate to take up be bill before Thursday, the last day of the Legislature’s work session. The bill does not die, however, and can be taken up by the full Senate next year.

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