Tag Archives: hate crimes

The Unraveling Begins….

Swastikas on churches. Threatening graffiti in minority neighborhoods. Racist posts on Facebook and Twitter. The Klan and the American Nazi Party celebrating Trump’s “win for the Whites.”

These are very scary times.

Ed Brayton notes that Raw Story is keeping a list of all of the bigoted, criminal and violent attacks on gays, blacks, Muslims, women, Latinos in others since Donald Trump was elected–and that the list is growing by leaps and bounds.

We need to be honest; Trump did not create the bigotry he exploited and encouraged. It was already there, often barely below the surface. It reacted with seething hostility to the election of an African-American President, and was exacerbated by recognition of same-sex marriage, by efforts to provide immigrants with a path to citizenship, and to other legal and cultural changes perceived–primarily by white men– as diminishing the privileged status of white Christian Americans.

NPR recently reported on the rise in hate crimes during 2015.

Hate crimes in 2015 were more than 6 percent more frequent than they were in 2014, with a two-thirds increase in religiously motivated attacks against Muslims.

The FBI’s Hate Crimes Statistics, 2015 report tallied more than 5,850 hate crime incidents in 2015.

Motivations for hate crime incidents, 2015: 56.9 percent were motivated by a race/ethnicity/ancestry bias. 21.4 percent were prompted by religious bias. 18.1 percent resulted from sexual-orientation bias. 2.0 percent were motivated by gender-identity bias. 1.3 percent were prompted by disability bias. 0.4 percent (23 incidents) were motivated by a gender bias.

Most of those — 56.9 percent — were racially motivated, with more than half of race-based attacks targeting African-Americans.

But religiously motivated attacks were a growing share of the tally. Incidents of religious hate crimes rose by nearly 23 percent compared to 2014.

Most hate crimes based on religion targeted Jewish people; anti-Semitic attacks were up more than 9 percent compared to 2014.

Since the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 60 percent of hate crimes are never reported to police, the actual incidence of bias crime is undoubtedly much higher than these statistics suggest.

I’m sure social scientists and mental health professionals have explanations for the loss of civility and increasing nastiness of our times. There’s the disorientation that accompanies rapid social change, the stresses caused by economic uncertainty, the unattractive but very human need to find someone or some group to blame when life isn’t going well. There’s tribalism,  fear of difference, and resentment at perceived loss of status.

I understand that we Americans are never going to come together around the campfire, metaphorically speaking, and sing kumbaya. But we are at risk of losing important norms of mutual respect and civic equality–norms that (while admittedly more honored in the breach than in reality) we have long held to be essential to our national identity.

I keep thinking about Rodney King’s plaintive question, “Can’t we all just get along?”

The answer–at least as provided by those who voted for Trump– seems to be “evidently not.”

Hate and Crime and Punishment

Can the law protect members of disfavored groups against hate crimes without running afoul of the First Amendment?

Indiana is one of a very few states that does not currently have a hate crimes statute, and a number of very well-meaning people point to that as evidence that we are condoning acts motivated by animus based upon race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Although animus may well explain some part of the opposition to such measures, there are legitimate reasons to go slowly when we consider criminalizing “hate.”

The American Constitution differentiates between actions which government is entitled to prohibit and/or punish, and ideas–no matter how harmful or despicable–that government is prohibited from sanctioning. (This distinction escapes too many of us; it is the reason that those “beleaguered” bakers and florists are free to disapprove of same-sex marriage–and to voice that disapproval–but not free to refuse service to same-sex customers.)

That brings us to another misunderstanding–a conflation of criminal intent with motive. 

In order for government to prove that a crime has been committed, a prosecutor must show that the accused actually intended to commit a crime. An affirmative answer to “Did the accused know it was rat poison when he put it in the stew he fed to the deceased?” establishes criminal intent. If the defendant can prove it was an accident–that he thought that tin contained paprika–he can be punished for negligence, but not for a crime.

His motive for putting rat poison in the stew, however, is irrelevant to the punishment.

Many proponents of so-called “hate crimes” legislation want to add punishment for the motive that led to the criminal act.  (For example, if I beat you senseless after we fought over money, I might face a sentence of 2-4 years, but if I beat you senseless because I hate  Episcopalians, the sentence range would increase to 3-5. We’d add a year based upon the motive.)

Opponents note that this approach effectively criminalizes the thought–the idea– that prompted the attack.

Proponents argue that these statutes send a message–that they are an important signal of our collective disapproval of bias.

Fortunately, there is a middle way that should satisfy the concerns of both camps.

When a defendant has been found guilty of a crime–murder, battery, vandalism, whatever–the typical statute provides a range of fines or sentences. The Judge decides whether to impose a sentence at the top or the bottom of that range, and s/he makes that determination after taking into account all mitigating and aggravating circumstances.

For example, if a first-time offender is facing 2-4 years, and has exhibited remorse, the Judge may opt for two years; if the defendant is a repeat offender with an “attitude,” the Judge may opt for four years.

There is no reason why the existence of bias cannot be an aggravating circumstance. (I would be surprised if it isn’t already part of the sentencing calculus in most courts.) Such an approach–explicitly used in several jurisdictions–avoids setting a fixed penalty for “bad thoughts” without requiring the criminal justice system to ignore the kinds of hateful influences that we collectively deem socially detrimental and (truly) unAmerican.

Hate crimes legislation is just another example of the cautionary adage: how you do something is every bit as important as what you do.