Friday, October 23, 2009

Q&A on Hate Crimes: One more time!

Today is my sweetie's birthday, so I plan to have a All Birthday All Day Friday. Before the festivities commence, however, I did want to elevate the following comment on my hate crimes news post yesterday for more public consumption.

I'm receiving the question as a well intentioned search for information -- and I'm also thinking with the president about to sign the bill the Senate passed yesterday in to law, you may get some of the same quesitons from those who still don't "get" why we need hate crimes legislation.

Q. I've never understood the whole idea of "hate crimes" and this is another example of it. I've had a couple of occasions to discuss the question with friends who strongly support hate crime legislation, but I've always come away scratching my head. I suppose my question is this: doesn't hate crime legislation make a mockery of the notion of "equal protection under the law?"

It's already illegal to beat someone to death with a baseball bat, for example. Where's the value in passing a special law against it in order to afford additional protection to a select group of citizens? Surely no one is credulous enough to believe that these laws will have any real deterrent effect, so what's the goal?

I'm a straight white male, Susan. Why should it be "more illegal" for someone to perpetrate violence against you than against me? Is my life worth less than yours in the eyes of the law?

A. All lives are equally valuable but, unfortunately, all lives are not equally valued. That sad reality was recognized decades ago when hate crimes leglistation was enacted to protect "equally protected" Americans who were "unequally targeted" by violent crimes solely because of their race. Perhaps you missed it when I wrote about some of these questions a couple of weeks ago. In either case, here you go again:

The Problem
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. However, in most cases, current law prevents the federal government from assisting state and local authorities.

What is the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act / Matthew Shepard Act?
The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (LLEHCPA)/Matthew Shepard Act gives the Department of Justice (DOJ) the power to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated violence by providing the DOJ with jurisdiction over crimes of violence where the perpetrator has selected the victim because of the person's actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

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.
[All the above from the HRC website.]

Bottom Line:
Hate crime laws are ALREADY on the books. This legislation is NOT about prioritizing one kind of violence over another -- it is about giving LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS the tools they need to call on the Department of Justice for assitance in investigating and prosecuting crimes of violence on victims targeted because of who they are. Those laws have been on the books for decades for race based hate crimes. And now they're being expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

And that should be good news for ANYONE who believes in liberty and justice for all -- OR in protecting the dignity of every human being.

Thanks for asking. Have a great day!
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5 comments:

uffda51 said...

I’ve never understood why this issue is hard to understand.

If a guy being pursued by the police in one of those televised high-speed chases crashes his car and car-jacks another, owned by, let’s say, a school teacher of Latvian heritage, this is a crime of opportunity. Latvians and school teachers watching the news will not feel singled out or intimidated.

But if a black family moves into what was previously an all white block and the next day racist slogans are spray painted on their house, this is not only an attempt at intimidating the family into leaving, but is also a message to all other black families. If there are two perpetrators there may well be a conspiracy at work.

I also don’t understand the common complaint that if hate crime legislation passes people will be arrested for their thoughts. Fred Phelps has picketed our church. He has never been arrested for doing so. He has also not acted violently towards anyone. It is not a crime to be a hate-filled bigot. The new legislation simply gives law enforcement tools to use when hate becomes action.

john said...

As far as I'm concerned, the whole "killing is already against the law so hate crimes legislation is unnecessary" argument is a giant red herring. The law has, for centuries, acknowledged that some kinds of killing are worse than others and penalized them accordingly. People get executed for committing first degree murder with special circumstances; do they get executed for committing negligent homicide, even though the victim is dead in both instances?

Lorian said...

I find it sometimes helps people understand the concept of "hate crimes" to put them in context of "terrorism."

Uffda51's example is an excellent one, but here is another. Let's say that someone burns down a building because they are a "fire bug" or because they want to collect insurance money. These are definitely criminal actions, and should be punished as such. But there is no added layer. They are straightforward crimes involving the destruction of one building with no real outside ramifications.

On the other hand, let's say someone burns down that building because it is a United States Federal building, and they are a member of an organization which hates the United States, wants to bring down our government, and desires to inspire terror in United States Citizens everywhere in hopes of intimidating us and manipulating us through fear.

The second arsonist will be punished, not just for simply burning down a building, but also for the additional crime of committing an act of terrorism against the people of the United States of America.

This is very similar to what someone does when they commit a hate crime. Let's say a vandal goes to a building in your neighborhood and spraypaints his name all over the wall. This is a criminal act -- an act of vandalism. But if he's just doing it because he's bored or because he wants everyone to know he has a name and a can of spraypaint, then it is not a particularly serious crime. Some paint remover and some community service time will do the trick.

On the other hand, if he takes his can of spraypaint to your local synagogue and paints swastikas and antisemitic hate slogans all over the outside, his crime is now moved up a notch to a "hate crime," because he has not only defaced property, but has committed an act of terrorism against an entire community of people. He has attempted to inspire fear and to intimidate a group because of his hatred for their religion or ethnicity.

I think terrorism is a concept which most of us understand quite readily in this day and age, and hate crimes are simply that: Acts of terrorism directed not only at the individual who is physically harmed by the crime, but intended to cause fear and intimidation in the larger minority community of which he is presumed to be a member. The crime against the individual is addressed by the statutes which punish criminal acts against individuals. The act of terrorism against that individual's larger community is the crime which is punished by the hate crimes statute.

Thanks for this great topic, Susan.

LGMarshall said...

If you ask me, every crime is a hate crime. I disagree with special rights and special punishments alike. How can you measure what someone else was thinking? Last time I checked, it's not against the law to be a stupid racist bigot.. nor should it be.

What if a Arab-American is a racist bigot, hates whites & hispanics, Jews and Asians. What if that person commits a crime against a person that is _______. How do you know that it was not merely circumstance? Where is the so-called line?

According to Hate Crime Legislation, that person, if found guilty, whould incur additional fines & sentences, just because he/she is a stupid bigot. Why not let the punishment fit the crime, and be done with it? So many more appeals and re-trials will now be put into effect of our already taxed criminal justice system. Hate crime legislation is not tenable.

SUSAN RUSSELL said...

LG -- Did you read the legislation? Did you miss that part that this is not about "special rights" or "special punishment" but about providing resources to law enforcement officers to bring to justice those who target people for violence just because of who they are.

Those resources have been available for DECADES for hate crimes based on race, religion or national origin. This law just expands to the list to include other target groups.

It's not about speech.

It's not about thoughts.

It's about liberty and justice for all.