Should There Even Be Hate-Crime Laws?

Congress is currently considering the
Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act,
also known as the
Matthew Shepard

On the face of it, hurting someone for being
gay/black/left-handed/whatever is a terrible thing, so it should be

But hurting people is already covered by other laws. And should
beating someone up for being gay be considered a worse crime than
beating up a random person on the street? It doesn’t seem so to me.
Yes, motive comes into play during criminal proceedings, but usually
it’s to determine things like whether the defendant is guilty of
murder or merely manslaughter. But being a homophobe isn’t a crime.
Just look at Fred Phelps. So why should a crime motivated by bigotry
be worse than the same crime, committed for some other reason?

The Human Rights Campaign presents
a possible answer:

A hate crime occurs when the perpetrator of the crime intentionally selects the victim because of who the victim is. Hate crimes rend the fabric of our society and fragment communities because they target an entire community or group of people, not just the individual victim.

In other words, the people who killed Matthew Shepard commited two
offenses: one against Shepard, obviously; but also a threat to the gay
community: “Look out, homos: you’re next!”

But that, too, would seem to be covered by other laws. If someone
killed a stockbroker — specifically sought out a finance worker
because he wanted to punish someone for the economic meltdown —
should that be prosecuted the same way as a hate crime? In both cases,
a person has been harmed, and a class of people has been threatened.
In fact, didn’t AIG have to take down the signs on some of its offices
because its
employees were being threatened
by people angry over the bailout? So why limit this sort of
legislation to those groups that have been discriminated against and
harassed in the past?

The Matthew Shepard act has some other provisions:

The Act provides the DOJ with the ability to aid state and local jurisdictions either by lending assistance or, where local authorities are unwilling or unable to act, by taking the lead in investigations and prosecutions of bias-motivated, violent crimes resulting in death or serious bodily injury. The LLEHCPA also makes grants available to state and local communities to combat violent crimes committed by juveniles, train law enforcement officers or assist in state and local investigations and prosecutions of bias-motivated crimes.

Why is this necessary?:

The Laramie, Wyoming Sheriff’s Office had to furlough five deputies in order to cover the more than $150,000 that it cost to investigate Matthew Shepard’s murder. Yet when Jasper, Texas investigated the lynching of James Byrd, Jr., it received $284,000 in federal funds because Byrd’s murder was motivated by race, rather than sexual orientation.

Human Rights First
Think Progress)

Providing federal assistance to state and local police departments
that don’t have the resources to investigate a crime seems like a good
idea. But the Shepard Act seems to be adding more special cases when a
more general solution is needed.

The problem isn’t that that the law addresses one unfairly-despised
minority and not another. The problem is cops not having the money and
manpower to do a good job and bring those responsible to justice. If
someone shoots up a post office in Smalltown, Indiana, and the
Sheriff’s department can’t conduct a proper investigation, will they
be denied federal assistance because no one thought to include postal
workers in this bill?

Maybe I’m wrong, but ultimately the Shepard bill seems to be trying to
solve real problems the wrong way. It’s not that I don’t think hurting
and threatening gays should be a crime. I just think that it shouldn’t
be limited to any one minority or handful of minorities; that it’s
just as bad to hurt and threaten anyone.

And if local police departments can’t bring criminals to justice
because they lack the resources to investigate properly, by all means,
let’s help them. But let’s not do this in a hate-crime bill simply
because the last time this problem came up, it involved a hate crime.

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2 Responses to Should There Even Be Hate-Crime Laws?

  1. Troublesome Frog says:

    This post does a good job of summarizing my misgivings about hate crimes laws in general. I am not sure how much motivation should play in the seriousness of an already serious crime. Some people point out that we already distinguish between murder committed in the heat of the moment and premeditated murder, but I think that there may be a difference between motivating factors and mitigating factors. It seems to me that in the absence of mitigating factors, motivation is irrelevant. If you murder somebody for insurance money, you don’t get a different sentence if the insurance payout was small or large. You’re just a murderer who killed somebody for money.

    It sounds to me like we’re reaching for a roundabout way to punish what is effectively terrorism (as much as I hate to use the T-word, I think it’s actually appropriate here). The first crime is murder, which should be the same crime regardless of the victim. The second crime is intimidation. Rolling them into a single crime makes some victims feel like they’re being treated unfairly and gives the general impression that we’re prosecuting thought crimes.

    As much as I am sympathetic to minority groups who are victims of violent intimidation, the way we’re going about it doesn’t sit well with me. I too have the programmer’s instinct that says that we should separate the violence and the intimidation and write robust, reusable, general definitions of both that can be used in all cases.


  2. arensb says:

    The first commenter at Daily Kos did point out that the second crime in a hate crime is terrorism. And yes, as much as that term is bandied about in vain, I agree that it’s appropriate here.

    Maybe I’m approaching this as a programmer, but it does seem that a more sensible approach would be to modularize crimes. As the story about the Laramie Sheriff’s office shows, currently the law is playing catch-up: if you threaten a group of people, but not one that’s already been put on the “history of discrimination” list, then hate-crime legislation doesn’t apply.

    Programs often include exceptions for weird cases. But when you find yourself piling one exception on top of another, it’s best to step back and see what can be separated out to make the code more maintainable. One would think that the same principle would apply to the law as well.


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