There is one area of the law that really disturbs me and that is the concept of “hate crimes.” These are laws are where the punishment is usually enhanced for perpetrators of criminal acts whose motivation was purely out of a dislike of an individual because they belong to a particular group. By doing this one elevates the status of the victim above that of other similarly situated victims of a comparable crime simply by their inclusion in some group.
The theory is that the victim belongs to a group considered vulnerable because of demonstrated past discrimination. Considered “message crimes,” they offend not only the particular victim, but victimize that person’s “group.” As such, groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center equate such crimes with “domestic terrorism.”
Furthermore, they argue that enhanced punishments are not unique to the criminal justice system. For example, crimes against police officers and children often carry heavier sentences. And their final argument is that hate crime legislation helps to overcome local prejudices, especially when juries mete out the sentences.
Crime is crime is crime no matter the motivation be it greed, opportunity or hate. The bottom line is that someone has been wronged- someone, not a group. A white person assaulted on the street and robbed is no less a victim than a black person assaulted and robbed on the street. That person is entitled to justice regardless of their skin color, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. To assert otherwise and to give special consideration to someone’s skin color, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation violates every tenet of American justice predicated on equal protection under the law. And that extends to victims, not just criminals.
Some crimes committed in the name of hate are truly heinous. The crimes committed against James Byrd, Matthew Sheppard and others were truly heinous acts. But, were they any worse than those committed by a Jeffrey Dahmer or Gustavo Palmas Reyes who beat his girlfriend to death because she cooked him dinner when he was not hungry? No one denies the heinousness of alleged hate crimes, but I do deny the qualitative differences because James Byrd’s perpetrators disliked blacks and Matthew Sheppard’s killers allegedly hated homosexuals (subsequent investigations indicate that drugs, not hate, may have been the motivation). And these perpetrators all share one thing in common- they all deserved life in prison or the death penalty not because of who they killed, but the fact they killed.
There are likewise other “hate crimes” that fall considerably lower than homicide or brutal assaults. Vandalism against religious institutions like churches, synagogues or mosques are often lumped in as hate crimes. But again, vandalism is vandalism regardless of the target and the perpetrators should be handled appropriately no matter the structure vandalized. Instead of viewing it as a “hate crime,” it should be viewed as a crime against property period.
Hate crime legislation is nothing more than feel good legislation that in no way eliminates or suppresses hatred in society. Despite having hate crime legislation on the books now, these crimes still exist. You cannot legislate away hatred.
It is also interesting to note statistics on hate crimes which the FBI publishes. In 2007, there were 7,624 hate crimes. In a country of over 310 million, your chances of being the victim of a hate crime is 0.002%. Thus, “hate crimes” are a “solution” in search of a major problem. However, if you live in a traditionally blue state, your odds are three times greater than being a resident of a red or swing state. The lack of hate crimes on a per capita basis underscores the fact that this is merely feel good legislation that clutters the law books. Incidentally, the worst state is New Jersey; Mississippi the best.
More importantly, there are the constitutional issues involved. At what point do we cross the line from offensive hateful speech, which is protected, to a hate crime? Fortunately, we have First Amendment protections but to understand the potential problems one need look at Europe. In many countries, they respect free speech while placing hate crime legislation on an equal footing. Yet free speech protection has not stopped France from prosecuting people who speak out against Muslims and illegal immigrants. That has not stopped Austria from imprisoning a man for denying the Holocaust. The SPLC includes in their list of hate crimes in 2014 a rally held by Ku Klux Klan members at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
As for the argument that federal hate crime legislation provides an additional layer of review to guard against local prejudices, then apparently they need to do some work in some liberal states. This is merely yet another intrusion of the federal government into local affairs. Obviously, there are still bastions of hate, racism and homophobia in this country, but no amount of hate crime legislation is going change that fact. Not every local crime rises to the importance of a national problem. Since this legislation affects the level of sentencing, perhaps removing the jury from that process or allowing a judge to overrule a jury sentence is the solution based on the heinousness of the crime.
In effect and like so many other things, hate crime legislation is simply a solution looking for a problem that is not as bad as the civil rights community would have you believe. Criminals should be dealt with accordingly based on the heinousness of the crime, not the color of the victim’s skin, their ethnicity, their religion, or their sexual orientation.