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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.

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This summer, news broke that prisoners in a Virginia women's prison were being segregated for not looking "feminine" enough, being thrown into a "butch wing" by prison guards. According to the Washington Blade, the Bureau of Justice Statistics "has identified sexual orientation to be the single-highest risk factor for becoming the victim of sexual assault in men's facilities."

Although well-established groups like the HRC, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays have poured much energy into hate-crimes legislation, other, smaller LGBT organizations have opposed them on the grounds that toughening the criminal justice system will do little to further tolerance or equality for LGBT people, particularly given the fact that they continue to be targeted by the very same system.

Many more radical LGBT groups reject hate-crimes legislation on the grounds that the any further expansion of the criminal justice system is at odds with their fight for human rights.

In a letter this spring to supporters of New York's Gender Employment Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) -- which includes a provision that would enhance sentences for existing hate crimes -- a coalition of local advocacy groups wrote: "It pains us that we cannot support the current GENDA bill, because we cannot, and will not, support hate-crimes legislation.

Rather than serving as protection for oppressed people, the hate-crimes portion of this law may expose our communities to more danger -- from prejudiced institutions far more powerful and pervasive than individual bigots. Trans people, people of color and other marginalized groups are disproportionately incarcerated to an overwhelming degree.

Trans and gender-nonconforming people, particularly transwomen of color, are regularly profiled and falsely arrested for doing nothing more than walking down the street. Almost 95 percent of the people locked up on Riker's Island are black or Latino/a. Many of us have been arrested ourselves or seen our friends, members, clients, colleagues and lovers arrested, often when they themselves were the victims of a violent attack.

Once arrested, the degree of violence, abuse, humiliation, rape and denial of needed medical care that our communities confront behind bars is truly shocking, and at times fatal.

The Human Rights Campaign argued that passage of the Shepard Act would "put would-be perpetrators on notice that our society does not tolerate bias-motivated, violent crime." But what happens when the perpetrators are those whose duty it is to supposedly enforce the law?

When Tough on Crime Meets Human Rights

Just before the vote on the Shepard Act on July 16, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions -- an opponent of the legislation who could hardly be less tolerant of LGBT rights -- pulled a cynical maneuver: He introduced three last-minute additions to the amendment, which was widely decried as a transparent ploy to derail the legislation.

One of them would make the federal death penalty available for prosecutions of hate crimes, an idea that alarmed the legislation's supporters. "This amendment is unnecessary and is a poison pill designed to kill the bill," reported HRC Backstory (the blog of the Human Rights Campaign).

There's no question Sessions has zero interest in bolstering the hate-crimes bill. But nor does it seem particularly likely that that his maneuver would "kill the bill." After all, as previously discussed, it has been a long time since Democrats had a problem supporting tough-on-crime legislation.

Regardless of its actual strategic value, many of the groups to have fought hard for the hate-crimes bill have sent messages asking Congress to oppose the Sessions amendment.

"The death penalty is irreversible and highly controversial -- with significant doubts about its deterrent effect and clear evidence of disproportionate application against poor people," read a letter signed by a long list of advocacy groups, from the Anti-Defamation League to the HRC to the NAACP, which reminded legislators that "no version of the bill has ever included the death penalty."

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