Hating On Hate Crimes Laws

Based on my comments during the Book of Matt series we just ran, a reader asks:

Are you seriously opposed to hate crime laws? Maybe I misunderstood you. Here’s why simply enforcing “regular assault” laws is inadequate when the motive is hate:

A hate crime is, by definition, designed to strike fear into a group/community of people – not just a single victim.  A punch in the face that is motivated by the fact that the victim is gay, or black, Jewish, or whatever, is an attack on the entire group of similar people (a minority group).

If your response is limited to the impact on the single victim, you’re still off-base: of course the intent of the perpetrator matters.  That is why we differentiate between say, manslaughter and first degree murder: intent.  The victim in all cases is equally dead.

My basic stance on hates crimes is seen above.  For more, you can read my NYT Magazine cover-story from 1999, “What’s So Bad About Hate?” Another reader is on my side of the issue:

According to a 2009 study (pdf), 88% of criminologists don’t believe the death penalty is a deterrent to homicides, with 87% saying getting rid of the death penalty would have no significant effect on murder rates, with 75% saying that “debates about the death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime problems.” So, if death isn’t a deterrent, it makes no sense that a longer sentence (if you are found guilty of the crime) would affect any change in behavior.

Another differs:

One of the reasons that crimes of power occur is precisely because the majority offenders carry in their bank of experiences the implicit (and sometimes explicit) promises associated with their power. To whit: that they will NOT be prosecuted according to the normal standards, and that they will NOT be held to account for their actions, precisely because the actions were taken against the powerless.

Regrettable? Of course. It would be great if every assault were prosecuted as assault. But consider Trayvon Martin:

whatever you think of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, it is beyond doubt that he would not have been charged at all for the basic crime were it not for the public pressure applied in pursuit of a trial. Similarly with Matthew Shepard, that the defendants were found guilty and put in prison does not prove that the “system works.” It might prove that, but it could equally prove that public pressure around the death of Shepard encouraged authorities to act on the crime, rather than brushing it away or letting it rest.

I’m with you in theory on hate crimes; yes, in an ideal world, it would be great if the powerful were brought to account for the face-value crime they have committed. But that ideal world is not this world, and hate-crimes statutes have the effect of communicating clearly to privileged groups that crimes against those without a voice are not tolerated – and they have the added effect, when they are on the books at the federal level, of allowing the federal government to take the case out of the hands of local authorities who might be actively impeding the investigation and prosecution of such crimes.

Any rational account of how we hold murders and assailants accountable must, quite clearly, take stock of these power dynamics. Failing to do so is to miss the attainable good in favor of the unattainable perfect.

Another adds:

One of the the primary benefits of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act is that it authorizes the Justice Department to provide financial grants to state and local law enforcement to cover the extraordinary expenses associated with the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes, as well as authorizing the provision of grants for local programs to combat hate crimes committed by juveniles, including programs that train local law enforcement officers in identifying, investigating, prosecuting and preventing hate crimes. If news reporting at the time was accurate, the Laramie police department had to lay off five police officers and the department nearly went bankrupt trying the criminals involved.

More thoughts from readers here.