Senate Bill 198 and FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions: Bias crime laws and SB 198

What is a bias crime law?

A bias crime law (also called a hate crime law) is a law to punish criminal acts that target victims based on their specific traits. Bias crimes are viewed as threatening not just the direct victims, but all people who share the victims’ targeted trait.

For example, if a criminal burns down someone’s home, it is arson. If a criminal burns down a synagogue due to his anti-Semitism, that act rises to the level of arson as a bias crime, because it threatens even Jewish people who don’t attend that synagogue.

Different states include different specific traits in their bias crime laws, such as race, religion or national origin. While each state’s bias crime law may differ in wording, the laws share the same broad goal.

Does Indiana have a bias crime law already?

Indiana’s laws on criminal sentencing allow a judge to increase the length of a criminal’s sentence for any factor the judge considers relevant. The Indiana Supreme Court has ruled these laws give judges the ability to increase the sentence for a criminal act if it was motivated by a specific trait of the victim, including race.

This broad language in Indiana law means judges can already add additional time to a criminal’s sentence if their crime is motivated by bias, even though Indiana doesn’t have a law establishing specific penalties for bias crimes.

Separately, Indiana has a law requiring local police departments to report suspected bias crimes to the Indiana State Police. This law, which was enacted in 2003, defines what types of crimes qualify as a “bias crime” and includes a list of specific traits.

What does Senate Bill 198 do?

SB 198 is only used if a person commits a crime that exists today.

If a person commits an existing crime and the judge finds the crime was motivated by bias due to the victim’s real or perceived characteristic, belief, practice, association or other attribute including but not limited to color, creed, disability, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation, then the judge can add additional time to the sentence. This list of characteristics is set out in Indiana Code 10-13-3-1.

IC 10-13-1-1 was passed into law in 2003 for the purpose of reporting bias crimes.

Does SB 198 cover all types of bias crimes?

Yes. This law is carefully worded to make sure that courts can punish any bias crime committed against a person based on any trait they may have, including gender, even if that trait is not specifically listed in the law.

Indiana Code 10-13-3-1, which was enacted in 2003, includes a list of specific characteristics that have historically caused individuals to be targets of bias crimes. However, this list by itself is not all encompassing. For example, the list does not include age or gender.

Instead of trying to craft a list that could cover every conceivable trait that might cause someone to be a victim of a bias crime, SB 198 allows judges to recognize a crime as a bias crime if the victim was targeted because of a “real or perceived characteristic, trait, belief, practice, association, or other attribute the court chooses to consider, including but not limited to an attribute described in IC 10-13-3-1.”

The truth is that no list can cover every reason that a person might be targeted as a victim of a bias crime. SB 198 will give judges the ability to identify bias crimes no matter what characteristic caused the victim to be targeted.

What is a sentencing aggravator?

This is a term that describes how judges increase criminal sentences under Indiana law.

Each crime in Indiana law carries an advisory, minimum and maximum sentence. For example, the advisory sentence for murder is 55 years, the minimum sentence is 45 years, and the maximum sentence is 65 years.

When a person is convicted of a crime, the judge uses the advisory sentence as the starting point to determine the appropriate sentence length for the crime. If there are aspects of the case that made this specific criminal act worse than in a typical case, the judge can increase the sentence up to the maximum based on “aggravating factors.” If there are aspects of the case that made this specific criminal act less egregious than in a typical case, the judge can shorten the sentence down to the minimum based on “mitigating factors.”

SB 198 makes it clear that committing a bias crime is an aggravating factor under Indiana’s criminal sentencing law.

Can a person be convicted of a bias crime for their speech?

No. A bias crime law does not criminalize any speech or conduct that is legal today. A person can only be found to have committed a bias crime if their underlying act was already against the law.