After the Georgia General Assembly failed to approve its own statewide hate crime law, the city of Sandy Springs is moving forward on its own ordinance, the first city law of its kind in the state.

“With strong advocacy from ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) and other citizens (many/most being from Sandy Springs), and given that Georgia is now one of only four states without a hate crime law, I felt it appropriate for Sandy Springs to take up local legislation,” District 6 Sandy Springs City Councilman Andy Bauman said.

At its July 16 meeting at City Springs, the council voted 6-0 to approve the ordinance he proposed. At a council work session four weeks earlier, Bauman, who is Jewish, talked about recent hate crimes nationwide. One example he gave was the October mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 individuals died and six more were injured during services there.

He said Sandy Springs’ ordinance, like the proposed Georgia one, will impose higher penalties on suspects convicted of a hate crime in the city.

“While we are limited in the crimes over which we have jurisdiction, there are in fact some acts which are common hate crimes, such as vandalism (religious facilities, schools and cemeteries are common targets),” he said. “Our ordinance provides for enhanced penalties for such crimes, where it can be proven that the victim is targeted based on their race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc.

“To be clear – as my supporting memo states (can be found online) – our (hate crime ordinance) does not create a crime against hateful thought or speech which is otherwise protected by the First Amendment. Rather, an underlying crime must first be proven and then separately the prosecution must prove the hateful intent/motivation beyond a reasonable doubt.”

There is a federal hate crime statute that has been updated or expanded over the years since the first one was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968.

Most states have their own hate crime laws, but Georgia is one of four that does not have one (Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming are the others). Georgia’s 2000 hate crime law was struck down four years later by the Georgia Supreme Court, which stated it was “unconstitutionally vague.”

The proposed statewide hate crime law, House Bill 426, was approved by the House during the 2019 legislative session in March but was not voted on by the Senate. The bill, which was sponsored by District 104 Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, and co-sponsored by five other House members, including District 52 Rep. Deb Silcox, R-Sandy Springs, could be approved by both chambers of the Legislature next year.

According to the bill document, it would give judges the authority to impose additional sentences and/or fines for individuals convicted of a hate crime, upon sentencing. The punishments are an extra three to 12 months in prison and a fine of up to $5,000 for a misdemeanor, an extra six to 12 months and a fine of up to $5,000 for a high and aggravated misdemeanor and an extra two years or more in prison for a felony.

When asked why the bill never was voted on by the Senate, Silcox said, “I really don’t know. I wish I had a good answer for you.”

She said the passage of Sandy Springs’ ordinance should encourage the General Assembly to approve the statewide hate crime bill next year.

Of the statewide bill, she added, “I really like it because you still have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the underlying crime was committed, and this gives that option of enhancing the sentence if (suspects) are convicted of a felony. … It has to be clear and convincing for both.”

Former District 49 State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, who retired in 2018 and also served as Sandy Springs’ city attorney, that year helped devise another statewide hate crime bill (Senate Bill 373), but it was not approved by the House. Willard’s successor in the House, Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, is one of the representatives supporting the new statewide hate crime bill.

Bauman said he had lots of help in crafting the city ordinance, including the Anti-Defamation League and Sandy Springs staff members, including City Attorney Dan Lee.

“It’s a great example of bottom-up policy-making vs. top-down, where an agenda item is initiated by our or just elected officials,” the councilman said.

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