The first hate crime laws were enacted in 1969, and this area of law has grown exponentially over the years. A hate crime occurs when the perpetrator of a crime selects their victim based on membership or affiliation with a group, religious belief, creed, lifestyle or immutable characteristics such as race and gender. Whether a crime is designated a hate crime or not is important for sentencing, because if a criminal act is classified as a hate-crime the accused will face an enhanced sentence. For example, if someone punches someone on the street for no reason, they will be charged with battery.
However, if someone punches someone on the street because they are Jewish, the attacker will be charged with battery and face a hate crime enhancement. This is significant, because a battery charge may only carry a sentence of 6 months, but the actions are classified as a hate-crime the sentence could be two years.
Hate crime laws are enacted with the best of intentions, because when situations like Matthew Shepard are brought to light, communities are infuriated. The tragic incident of Matthew Shepard, being tortured and murdered for no other reason than his sexual orientation, was a heart wrenching story. As details of what horrible people the murderers were, the nation became even more infuriated with the story. These horrific acts eventually resulted in President Obama signing The Matthew Sheppard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law in 2009. This legislation increased the number of what groups protected by hate-crime laws, which include the addition of sexual orientation as a protected class.
Pros and Cons of Hate Crimes
Although, this legislation was passed with the best of intentions, there is controversy surrounding it. Three primary points of contention are:
1. Do hate crime laws prefer different groups of victims over others? Critics of hate-crime laws argue that the purpose of legislation is to treat everyone equally. Therefore, when someone is victimized by a crime they suffer harm, i.e. if someone is stabbed and robbed they have been injured and lost money. This harm is the same whether a white male robs a white male, a white male robs a black male, or a white gay male robs a black straight male, so on and so on. In summary, being the victim of a robbery is a horrific event in any victim’s life, and critics of the law ask why one victim is entitled to sympathy and protection than another?
The counterargument is that if an individual was victimized for nothing other than their race, the perpetrators conduct is even more reprehensible and should be punished more harshly. The controversy however, has been clearly decided by the legislature and hate-crime laws are in effect across the United States.
2. What groups are entitled to more protection under hate crime laws? If it is applied too liberally, will unfair sentences occur? The original hate-crime laws enacted in 1969 only applied to federally protected activity, such as voting. Furthermore, these laws were primarily enacted to protect African-Americans discrimination. However, as time progressed, more groups were included and protection applied to non-federally protected activity. The controversial aspect with these enactments are twofold:
(A) By identifying certain groups, others are excluded. Clearly, individuals belonging to the major religions such as Islam, Judaism and the like are protected. However, what about a Scientologist? Do these laws promote favoritism towards certain beliefs over others?
(B) Criminal activity happens and often involves people with different beliefs, but should all these be classified as hate-crimes?
Furthermore, something innocuous may be turned into a life-changing event, depending on whether it is labeled as a hate-crime or not. A hypothetical could be two college kids fighting over a girl at a bar. This would not be a good decision, but many college-aged kids make poor decisions. However, in that hypothetical if one of the parties is a Black-Christian and the other a Muslim, both could be charged with a hate-crime. Fighting over a girl at a bar is not a federally protected activity, which was the original intent of the law, but should that incident be considered a hate crime?
3. Do hate crime laws impact a Defendant’s right to fair trial? Does allowing the prosecution to introduce the inflammatory topics of race, religion and sexual orientation allow a criminal defendant to receive a fair trial? Another argument is that a prosecutor can impact an accused’s right to a fair trial. It is up to the prosecutor whether to charge someone with a hate-crime or not, and brining up difficult topics like race, religion, and sexual orientation would not typically be relevant to a whether someone committed a crime. However, hate-crime legislation allows these topics to be discussed at trial. Therefore, in the hypothetical bar fight between the Black Christian and Muslim, the incident could be a routine battery and self-defense case. Or it could be classified as a hate crime, resulting in the discussion of racial and religious biases. This could result in a number of unnecessary stones being overturned and impacting both parties right to a fair trial. However, proponents of hate-crime law can argue that if someone is vandalizing mosques based on an ignorant fear of Muslims, they might only be charged with vandalism. The sentence for vandalism may only be a few months. However, the prosecutor can add a Hate-Crime enhancement, which could result in a more appropriate sentence for that perpetrator.
Hate-crime laws present difficult questions, which have strong arguments on both sides. For now the Mathew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act have been enacted, which has resulted in the legislature indicating a desire to increase the prosecution of hate-crimes. For now only time can answer the question of whether hate-crime laws are helpful or harmful.