FILE - Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan

Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan speaks from his desk on the floor of the Georgia Senate on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in Atlanta.

(The Center Square) – The Georgia Senate gave the initial approval Tuesday to a long-awaited bill that increases the penalty for hate crimes and directs authorities to keep track of hate crime occurrences in the state.

The measure, House Bill 426, engrossed by the Senate, 29-22, has been a vocal point of discussion since the General Assembly returned last week to the state Capitol, where they were met by Georgians rallying for its passage.

Under Georgia law, when a bill is engrossed, no other amendments or changes can be made to the legislation. The Senate now has to vote on the current version of HB 426.

"We've talked about this bill, especially a lot the last week," said Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I think we have a version that we can get past that everybody's had input in."

The version of the measure now in the Senate would increase the sentencing for crimes that target victims based on race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability, or physical disability. Defendants who are found guilty would have to pay a $5,000 fine. Those convicted of a misdemeanor could face six months to a year in prison, and felony offenses would result in a minimum of two years.

Under the bill, law enforcement officers would have to create a Bias Crime Report with details about incidents, including evidence of the discrimination. Local police departments would be required to keep track of all of the reports of hate crimes, with or without arrests. The data would be published and monitored by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Georgia is one of five states without a hate crime law. The House approved the measure in March 2019 and it had been sitting in the Senate ever since, but new momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement and the high profile death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man killed in south Georgia during an altercation where the suspect used a racial slur, have given the bill legs.

The measure was resurrected in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday.

Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, sponsored an amendment that added first responders to the class of people protected by the bill. The provision quickly drew criticism from Democrats and civil rights organizations, which argued law enforcement and other first responders already are a protected class.

The Senate Rules Committee removed the provision late Monday night.

The Senate, however, voted Tuesday, 33-20, to approve a separate measure that would establish new standards for when a law enforcement officer is under investigation, allow officers to seek civil damages if they are wrongfully accused and creates a "bias motivated intimidation" offense when a first responder is targeted.

Dubbed the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, House Bill 838 now heads to the House for approval before being placed on Gov. Brian Kemp's desk.

"There's nothing in this legislation that protects a first responder who has acted outside the law, and the Senate is committed to studying police reforms that will provide clear guidelines on use of force with the aim of eliminating the horrifying deaths and injuries we've witnessed across the country," Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said in a statement. "We do need change. In order to achieve long-term progress, we must cultivate an atmosphere that attracts and retains high-quality, well-trained first responders."

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for three years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.