Do Hate Crime Laws Do Any Good?
Continued from previous page
But, as with the Clinton administration, the real political value of this recent round of votes was that it gave politicians a chance to appear tough on crime while also appearing to support gay rights. A number of those Democrats who supported the Matthew Shepard Act have been slow to back measures that would actually bestow equal rights on LGBT people. Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, to name a few, all oppose same-sex marriage, yet voted in favor of the Shepard Act.
What's more, a number of Democratic senators who voted for the Shepard Act voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Even Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, who in 2004 was one of two Democrats to vote in favor of amending the Constitution to limit marriage to heterosexual couples -- along with then-Georgia Democrat, and certifiable lunatic, Zell Miller -- voted for the Matthew Shepard Act.
Given the years of ad campaigns and political lobbying it has taken to get this legislation through Congress, it seems worth considering whether this is the best use of resources by influential LGBT groups, especially given that, as the Shepard case demonstrated, it is already possible to fully prosecute brutal crimes driven by hate or bigotry.
One expert on hate crimes and deterrence, James B. Jacobs, wrote as far back as 1993: "The horrendous crimes that provide the imagery and emotion for the passage of hate-crime legislation are already so heavily punished under American law that any talk of 'sentence enhancement' must be primarily symbolic."
Many LGBT activists agree. As one blogger argued on Feministing recently: "Putting our energy toward promoting harsher sentencing takes it away from the more difficult and more important work of changing our culture so that no one wants to kill another person because of their perceived membership in a marginalized identity group."
Tough on Crime for Progressives?
In a country that leads the world in incarceration -- 2.3 million people are lodged in the nation's prisons or jails, a 500 percent increase over the past 30 years -- the U.S. criminal justice system most brutally affects those very communities that hate-crime laws, historically, have ostensibly sought to protect.
An example: This summer, a new study found that 1 in 11 prisoners are serving life sentences in this country, 6,807 of whom were juveniles at the time of their crimes. According to the Sentencing Project, its findings "reveal overwhelming racial and ethnic disparities in the allocation of life sentences: 66 percent of all persons sentenced to life are nonwhite, and 77 percent of juveniles serving life sentences are nonwhite."
When it comes to LGBT communities, it is only recently that the "homosexual lifestyle" didn't itself amount to criminal activity in the eyes of the law. (The Supreme Court only overturned laws banning sodomy in 2003.) And the history of police brutality against gays, lesbians and transgender people is hardly history.
Just this month, a gay couple was detained by police in Salt Lake City merely for kissing. A similar incident in El Paso, Texas, led to five gay men being kicked out of a restaurant because the restaurant did not tolerate "the faggot stuff." "Particularly troubling for the El Paso case is that the security officers actually tried to cite laws against sodomy that were thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court more than five years ago," pointed out one blogger at Change.org.
The criminal justice system has proved to be particularly brutal when it comes to those who are already behind bars, with violence and segregation regularly targeting gays, lesbians and trangender people.