COLUMBIA — With just a few days left in the South Carolina legislative session, a House-passed bill to enhance penalties for hate crimes advanced to the Senate floor, maintaining its slim chances of becoming law this year.
In a 13-10 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the hate crimes bill May 4 after a 30-minute debate.
The panel's chairman, state Sen. Luke Rankin, said before the vote that advancing the bill would keep it alive for now, with expectations that a more extensive debate could happen in the full chamber.
Rankin, R-Conway, was one of several Republicans to vote in favor of it.
"I make no grand illusions in advancing this bill that it will have life, but again, that is the hope here," Rankin said.
The legislation, H.3620, would only enhance penalties for people who have already been convicted of an underlying violent crime. Punishment could be increased by up to an additional five years in prison or $10,000 in fines if a judge determines the culprit targeted the victim due to a specific personal characteristic.
State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, emphasized that point as he responded to emails he said he had received suggesting the bill would criminalize free speech.
"There's no hate crime unless there's an underlying violent crime," Campsen said. "No religious speech is going to be criminalized under this unless you commit a homicide or an assault."
Lawmakers amended the bill to add age and political opinions as protected characteristics. They also made clear that sentencing proceedings about whether a crime counts as a hate crime would follow the initial criminal trial with the same jury, similar to the way the state adjudicates death penalty cases.
The other protected characteristics are race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender, national origin and physical or mental disability.
State Sen. Rex Rice, R-Easley, suggested the bill should instead impose mandatory minimum sentences for people who commit hate crimes rather than extending their underlying sentences.
"If somebody served 15 years and they're rehabilitated, at that point I think they need to get out," Rice said. "Right now we've got a problem with overcrowding in our corrections facilities, and I think this just makes it worse."
The long-debated measure received a boost of support this year from the state’s influential business community, as several major companies warned that the ongoing lack of a hate crimes law would damage the state’s reputation.
South Carolina is one of just two states without any hate crimes law on the books, along with Wyoming. Arkansas removed itself from that short list earlier this year by passing a bill, though critics contend their version is so weak that it hardly constitutes a hate crimes law.
The bill would need to pass the Senate by May 13 in order to have a chance of becoming law this year. Otherwise lawmakers could pick it back up next year at the same point it left off.
State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, the lead sponsor of the bill, said he believes it's important that the Senate act sooner than later.
"Hate crimes are on the rise and hate groups are on the rise," said Gilliard, D-Charleston. "We've got to show the world and the state that we're willing to make progress and keep moving forward."
All eight of the committee's Democrats voted in favor of the bill, along with five Republicans: Tom Young of Aiken, Scott Talley of Greenville, Sandy Senn of Charleston, Rankin and Campsen.
The 10 Republicans voting against it were Shane Massey of Edgefield, Richard Cash of Anderson, Dwight Loftis of Greenville, Billy Garrett of Greenwood, Michael Johnson of Fort Mill, Wes Climer of Rock Hill, Brian Adams of Goose Creek, Penry Gustafson of Camden, Josh Kimbrell of Spartanburg and Rice.
The bill is named after the late state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine victims in a 2015 racist attack on a Bible study at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church.