Do Hate Crime Laws Do Any Good?
Continued from previous page
Will Tougher Sentences Deter Hate Crimes?
In 2007, the Dallas Morning News ran an editorial titled "The Myth of Deterrence," which took on the canard that maximum penalties would protect people from violent crime.
In theory, the death penalty saves lives by staying the hand of would-be killers. The idea is simple cost-benefit analysis: If a man tempted by homicide knew that he would face death if caught, he would reconsider.
But that's not the real world. The South executes far more convicted murderers than any other region, yet has a homicide rate far above the national average. Texas' murder rate is slightly above average, despite the state's peerless deployment of the death penalty. If capital punishment were an effective deterrent to homicide, shouldn't we expect the opposite result? What's going on here?
"The devil really is in the lack of details," the paper concluded. " At best, evidence for a deterrent effect is inconclusive, and shouldn't officials be able to prove that the taking of one life will undoubtedly save others? They simply have not met that burden of proof, and it's difficult to see how they could."
The arguments for enhanced sentencing in hate-crimes legislation takes a similar tack, arguing that tougher sentencing will protect LGBT communities by putting "would-be perpetrators on notice," in the words of the HRC.
But will a white supremacist really refrain from harming another person who he or she believes to be fundamentally inferior over the distant chance it might mean more jail time? Would Byrd's or Shepard's killers have stopped to rethink their violent, hate-fueled crimes?
"Even as national lesbian-and-gay organizations pursue hate-crimes laws with single-minded fervor, concentrating precious resources and energy on these campaigns, there is no evidence that such laws actually prevent hate crimes," Richard Kim wrote in The Nation in 1999. Ten years later, there still doesn't seem to be a lot of data to support this claim.
In 1999, some 21 states and the District of Columbia had hate-crimes laws on the books. Today, 45 states have enacted hate-crime laws in some form or other. Yet the trend has not been a lowering of hate crimes. In 2006, 7,722 hate-crime incidents were reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2006 -- an 8 percent increase from 2005.
2,640 were anti-black (up from 2,630 in 2005); 967 were anti-Jewish (up from 848 in 2005); 890 were anti-white (up from 828 in 2005); 747 were anti-male homosexual (up from 621 in 2005); 576 were anti-Hispanic (up from 522 in 2005); 156 were anti-Islamic (up from 128 in 2005).
Hate groups also appear to be on the rise. According to the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups has increased by 54 percent since 2000.
Speaking before the Senate vote on July 16, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., declared, "this legislation will help to address the serious and growing problem of hate crimes." But as one San Francisco Chronicle columnist recently asked, bluntly: "If hate-crime laws prevent hate crimes, shouldn't hate crimes be shrinking, not growing?"
Whether hate crimes are on the rise because more crimes are being classified as such is another question. But the data leave the question of deterrence unanswered.
Regardless, the deterrence argument has been embraced by Democratic politicians. Speaking in favor of the Matthew Shepard Act, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., cited the crimes of Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, a white supremacist who killed two people and wounded nine others in a violent "spree" in 1999, apparently targeting Jews and African Americans. California Democrat Rep. Mike Honda cited the case of Angie Zapata, an 18-year-old transgender woman who was beaten to death in Greeley, Colo., last year.