ATLANTA -- Judges could sentence felons convicted of crimes motivated by bias to as much as five additional years in prison under a bill passed narrowly by the Georgia Senate on Wednesday.
Senators voted 30-23, largely along party lines, to let judges hand out stiffer fines and prison terms when they determine a crime has been committed because of the victim's race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender, disability or sexual orientation.
Supporters waved off concerns raised by opponents that the bill would deny criminals their constitutional right to have a jury -- not a judge -- decide what motivated their crimes.
"Who are we trying to protect here?" asked Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta. "We are talking about convicted felons, men who have run amok, wild men who have terrorized our people."
The bill would allow judges to increase fines by up to $10,000 for people convicted of misdemeanors deemed to have been hate crimes. Felony convictions could yield increased fines of up to $15,000 and as much as five additional years in prison.
Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, the bill's sponsor, said the measure would be aimed at the kinds of criminals responsible for arsons at black churches in 47 Georgia counties in recent years.
"I have in my hand reports on incidents of hate crimes in this country, but most importantly in Georgia, the churches that have been burned, the synagogues that have been desecrated," he said. "It's time we, as a Legislature, stand up and say, `No more."'
But Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said increasing penalties for crimes against certain groups of victims would, in effect, place a higher value on protecting those people than their fellow residents.
"The foundation of America has been equal protection," he said. "We are all equal in the eyes of God, and in America we are all equal in the eyes of the law. That's the issue that is under attack today."
Sen. Clay Land, R-Columbus, cited a recent opinion from S. Philip Brown, a judge in the Macon Judicial Circuit, that the bill is unconstitutional because it would allow a judge at a sentencing hearing to determine a defendant's intent when he committed a crime. In a letter to Mr. Land, Judge Brown said defendants should have the right to a jury trial on any issue that is such an "integral element" of the charge against them.
Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.
Here is how local lawmakers voted in Wednesday's 30-23 Georgia Senate vote passing legislation increasing penalties for hate crimes:
Joey Brush, R-Appling, no
Don Cheeks, D-Augusta, did not vote
Charles Walker, D-Augusta, yes