Hate Crimes are Message Crimes

By Steve Gutow, Michel Kinnamon and Sayyid M. Syeed The American experience of a pluralistic democracy is unique in the … Continued

By Steve Gutow, Michel Kinnamon and Sayyid M. Syeed

The American experience of a pluralistic democracy is unique in the human story and the source of our nation’s strength. The unprecedented freedoms and opportunities that we enjoy make the United States the world’s most dynamic and diverse society. Many of our family members came from disparate parts of the globe to make America their home. Many sought a life free from the shackles of oppression. Many fled intolerance. For too many however, the promise of America has been tarnished by hate and bias. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the case of hate crimes. These horrific and degrading acts are anathema to the principles on which our country was founded. Our national hate crimes laws should be improved so they can to more effectively deter hate crimes and protect vulnerable populations.

As people of faith and as Americans committed to social justice, we know that hate crimes are message crimes. They send the message not only to the victim, but to entire communities that they are neither welcome nor safe. This impact is felt beyond political lines and geographic boundaries.

The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act is a crucially important piece of legislation. This bill would expand the definition of hate crimes to include crimes targeted at people on the basis of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability – categories not covered under current law. It would also remove restrictive provisions that allow federal action only if the hate crime victim was engaged in a narrow range of federally protected acts. Today, the Department of Justice is too often prevented from providing necessary assistance in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. If local authorities are unwilling or unable to provide an effective investigation or prosecute these alarming crimes, it is critical that the federal government be empowered to assist local jurisdictions and independently pursue justice.

In too many cases, victims of a felonious hate crime witness their attacker’s offense reduced to a minor misdemeanor charge, resulting in a mere slap on the wrist with no prison time. And far too often, local law enforcement officials lack the ability to prosecute hate crimes as hate crimes, even when the evidence overwhelmingly suggests the crime was motivated solely by bias against a group in which the victim is believed to belong. Violent hate crimes create fear among members of a particular group in our society, something that no American deserves.

Take, for instance, the murder of 18-year old Scotty Joe Weaver. In 2004, he was robbed, beaten, stabbed, strangled, partially decapitated, and set on fire in a manner described by the local prosecutor as being “suggestive of overkill, which is not something you see in a regular robbery and murder.” The Alabama District Attorney added that there was “no doubt in my mind” the murder was motivated by Weaver’s sexual orientation. However, because of the structure of Alabama’s law, this act could not be tried as hate crime. In 2003, Billy Ray Johnson, a mentally disabled man, was ridiculed, assaulted and left for dead on a desolate country road in Texas. Johnson’s assailants received only misdemeanor charges. In both cases, the federal government was prevented from investigating and prosecuting these horrific crimes. It’s no surprise that virtually every major law enforcement organization in the country and ** state attorneys general support the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

A nation’s laws are a reflection of its social contract with all of its citizens. Effective enforcement of strong laws addressing crimes based on prejudice will send a powerful message. Hate-based violence is an anathema to the principles of freedom and equality which form the cornerstone of our American democracy. Now we have a historic opportunity to make this legislation law. We need to build a society, government, and justice system that reflect our best values – freedom, pluralism, the rule of law, and justice.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Rev. Dr. Michel Kinnamon is the general secretary of the National Council of Churches; and Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed is the national director of the Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances for the Islamic Society of North America.

  • mediawatcher

    I’m totally in favor of legislation that will strengthen prosecution and enforcement of laws that protect ALL groups of citizens; I think that shows us to be a just and fair society. Strong prosecution would have led to more appropriate disposition of the two cases cited, regardless of the motive for the original crimes. Whether the motive is bias or pure blood lust, the ability to prosecute should be the same. So, yes, I favor enhanced federal enforcement in violent crimes of all natures.However, as I have said elsewhere, I’m suspicious of the argument that enhanced penalties deter hate crimes — crimes that “send a message” to an entire community — and I’m still seeking evidence that they’re effective in doing that. In addition, it can sometimes be difficult to discern whether a crime is a hate crime; by what legal standard should they be judged? So if they don’t deter (and I’m not saying they don’t; I’d like to know), and if it’s difficult to come up with a legal definition that can clear constitutional objections, perhaps the enhanced-punishment provisions need greater examination.This is an important question and I look forward to continuing dialog on it.

  • PattiFink1

    Hate-motivated crimes are a form of domestic terrorism. They tell an entire group of people that they could be next, affecting the victim(s) and all others in the same group. The LLEHCPA would not only expand the recognized targeted groups to include targets based on sexual orientation and gender identity & expression, but it would also bridge local law enforcement to federal investigative tools and resources that they would not otherwise be able to access.Mediawatcher: I’m not convinced that the death penalty has a deterrent effect at all, the legal standard employed to judge defendants facing it is all over the map with wildly varying standards and outcomes across the country and even within communities, and it continues to face constitutional objections…I would support greater examination of the death penalty.

  • Farnaz2

    I’m certainly in favor of strengthened Hate Crimes legislation, but, alone, they will do nothing.Not too long ago, a synagogue in the neighborhood in which I live was vandalized. A young woman was attacked by some thugs who thought she was Jewish; she was not, but that’s beside the point.The point is that much more than strengthening legislation/penalties needs to be done if you are to prevent deter hate-motivated criminals.Bigotry must be stopped in the newspapers and other media. Education/indoctrination needs to be comprehensive and ongoing on behalf of all potentially victimized groups.

  • Paganplace

    “However, as I have said elsewhere, I’m suspicious of the argument that enhanced penalties deter hate crimes — crimes that “send a message” to an entire community — and I’m still seeking evidence that they’re effective in doing that.”Oh, for evidence, look to the trials involving these hate crimes: many of the perpetrators actually feel they’re upholding ‘community standards,’ …when people get off with a slap on the risk for brutal, terroristic murders, if sends a message that the community tolerates and even encourages mistreatment of minority groups. Deterrence is one of those things that it’ve very hard to see… It’s about things that *don’t* happen. It is, however, easy to see when perpetrators feel they’ve done something broadly-acceptable if certain kinds of crimes are *not* punished or recognized.But it’s not just about *deterrence.*It’s also about *justice.* When someone’s queer-bashed to death, and the courts refuse to acknowledge that it was anything more than an ‘isolated incident,’ legally speaking, it *redoubles* the effects of these hate crimes, by making people feel the state won’t protect them. Furthermore, the state tolerating such crimes make people think it must be OK to indulge in more subtle acts of discrimination, think hate speech is ordinary or even *pious,* …and in fact, continue the notion that some minority groups aren’t *kinds of people,* but rather some kind of inherently unequal class that’s to be blamed for its own oppression. There’s plenty of supporting evidence of these dynamics. There’s more than deterrence involved, though.

  • Paganplace

    Oh, and on this, btw:”In addition, it can sometimes be difficult to discern whether a crime is a hate crime; by what legal standard should they be judged?”American jurisprudence has us covered on this… Such principles referred to as, ‘Innocent until proven guilty by a jury of one’s peers,’ and ‘reasonable doubt.’

  • Paganplace

    “Not too long ago, a synagogue in the neighborhood in which I live was vandalized. A young woman was attacked by some thugs who thought she was Jewish; she was not, but that’s beside the point.”Actually, in a way, it’s *not* beside the point, Farnaz. Actually, it shows how hate crimes hurt *everyone.* If a non-Jew is afraid of being oppressed in America because they may *look* like a Jew, are they really more essentially free than Jews from the fear? If a straight guy is afraid to wear some funky shirt or dress nice for fear of being thought ‘gay,’ is he not also having his liberty abridged by homophobia?

  • Paganplace

    (one more comment, wryly: For people said not to be an ‘identifiable minority,’ it sure seems sometimes that half of people’s efforts in this country go toward doing all manner of things to *avoid* being so (mis) identified, and having all that scorn and fear fall on *them.* )

  • gjdagis

    ALL crimes send a message to society so they should ALL be treated EQUALLY ! PERIOD !

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