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Do Hate Crime Laws Do Any Good?

There's no indication that getting hate crimes on the books actually prevents them.

"We have seen a man dragged to death in Texas simply because he was black. A young man murdered in Wyoming simply because he was gay. In the last year alone, we've seen the shootings of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Jewish children simply because of who they were. This is not the American way. We must draw the line." -- President Bill Clinton, final State of the Union Address, January 27, 2000.

It was a year-and-a-half after the horrific torture-murder of James Byrd Jr., the African American man who was assaulted, chained to a pickup truck and dragged for 3 miles by three white men in Jasper, Texas, a crime that the New York Times called "one of the grisliest racial killings in recent American history."

A few months later came the similarly brutal killing of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man who was savagely beaten and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming.

The perpetrators in both cases were slapped with severe punishments -- life sentences for Shepard's killers, and two death sentences and one life sentence for Byrd's. Nonetheless, in the emotional public upheaval that followed, both cases became rallying cries for the passage of state laws to toughen the sentences for hate-motivated crimes.

On the federal level, laws were already on the books defining race-motivated violence as hate crimes, but the same was not true of crimes against the LGBT community. The Matthew Shepard case would set the stage for a 10-year fight to pass federal hate crimes legislation to protect LGBT people. Leading the charge were such influential groups as the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay-rights organization.

Despite the fact that when it came to other issues -- "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" or marriage equality -- the Clinton administration was no friend of gay rights, the White House and congressional Democrats threw their weight behind hate crimes legislation. And no wonder; With Clinton presiding over some of the most expansive criminal justice reforms in U.S. history, anyone lobbying for tougher sentencing in the 1990s was in good company. In Congress, supporting hate-crime laws gave Democrats a chance to look tough on crime while also throwing a bone to the LGBT community.

"We hope Congress will heed this call and put aside politics to protect our nation's citizens from the brutal hate crimes that claimed the lives of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr.," Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, said in November 1999.

Almost 10 years later, on July 16, 2009, the U.S. Senate finally passed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, otherwise known as the Matthew Shepard Act, as an amendment to the 2010 National Defense Authorization bill, by a strong bipartisan vote of 63-28. The amendment extends federal hate-crime laws to include crimes that target a victim based on his or her "actual or perceived" gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

The Matthew Shepard Act is likely to be signed by President Obama, marking a major victory for HRC and other groups that have fought hard for it over the past 10 years. But even as many see this is a cause for celebration, nearly a decade after Clinton's final state-of-the-union address urged Congress to "draw the line" on hate crimes, the practical value of hate-crimes legislation remains dubious.

Despite supporters' contention that they will make vulnerable communities safer, there is little proof that the tougher sentencing that comes with hate crimes legislation prevent violent crimes against minority groups. Meanwhile, the U.S. prison system continues to swallow up more and more Americans at a record pace. With 1 in 100 Americans behind bars, is a fight for tougher sentencing really a fight worth waging?

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