Alex Blaze

Why we need hate crimes legislation

Filed By Alex Blaze | April 26, 2007 10:11 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: hate crimes against LGBT people, hate crimes legislation, talking points

As promised earlier, here are some talking points to include in your letters in favor of the Matthew Shepard Act. Remember, the bill does 3 specific things:

  1. Expand the law to authorize the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute certain bias-motivated crimes based on the victim's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. Current law only includes race, color, religion or national origin.
  2. Eliminate a serious limitation on federal involvment under existing law which requires that a victim of a bias-motivated crime was attacked because he/she was engaged in a specified federally-protected activity such as voting, serving on a jury or attending school.
  3. Add "gender" and "gender identity" to the Hate Crimes Statistics Act.

That's right. This bill does more than just add sexual orientation to existing hate crimes legislation. It makes that legislation actually effective by allowing hate crimes enhancements and federal help in cases that aren't already covered. And since the only cases that are covered by federal hate crimes legislation include those in which the victim was doing one of six activities related to voting, something needs to expand it.

So now that we're clear on what exactly this legislation does, why should we support it? I have four main reasons after the jump, and feel free to plagiarize me in your letters. Also, remember that I listed the addresses of the nine Hoosier Congressional Representatives here along with an explanation of why it's important to get these letters out within the next few days.

Here goes:

  1. Prevention: Hate crimes are committed by people who think what they're doing isn't wrong. According to the American Psychological Association:

    Most hate crimes are carried out by otherwise law-abiding young people who see little wrong with their actions. Alcohol and drugs sometimes help fuel these crimes, but the main determinant appears to be personal prejudice, a situation that colors people's judgment, blinding the aggressors to the immorality of what they are doing.

    And the APA would know a thing or two about what makes people tick! These people aren't just common thugs or thieves or vandals who for some reason commit a hate crime one day; they're a separate, generally law-abiding group of people who don't think that committing a hate crime is wrong. In fact, from the same source as above, "the Washington Institute for Mental Illness Research and Training has found that, in some settings, offenders perceive that they have societal permission to engage in violence against homosexuals." While the parallel crime would also be punishable, the hate-motivated criminal just doesn't see that as a crime and thinks that she or he will get away with it, or, even worse, is doing just what society wants. Without separate hate crimes legislation these people think that they found a loophole in the criminal code.

  2. Reporting: Victims of hate crimes often don't report them because they don't think that law enforcement will care. From the National Center for Victims of Crime:

    Particular note should be taken of how important it has been to victims [of hate crimes] whether others in the community seemed to care about what had happened to them. "No one seemed to care" is reported by numerous persons of varied ethnic backgrounds, always with a deep sense of disappointment. When others seemed not to care, the [negative psychological] effects on victims were intensified. Such a perceived lack of concern, whether from neighbors, strangers, officials, or whomever, added to a sense of isolation.

    Now we have a big problem in this country if the victims of hate crimes believe that no one around them cares about such acts. How does that translate when it comes time to reporting such crimes? From AsiaWeek:

    the San Francisco Police Department Hate Crimes Unit states that, "80 percent of hate crime perpetrators are never caught." Because victims of hate crimes often choose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, authorities are unable to address the offenses.
    And from Senator Ted Kennedy:

    According to the FBI, over 9,000 people a year, or 24 people every day are victimized by hate crimes. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that the number may be four times that many since so many hate crimes routinely go unreported.

    It's hard to be motivated to report a crime when someone thinks that the law won't care, and it's even harder to prosecute a crime if the victim doesn't report it. This legislation is needed to show that the law does care about hate crimes so that these crimes can be prosecuted and their perpetrators can be brought to justice. The "hate crimes should be punished the same as parallel crimes" argument doesn't hold water because these perpetrators don't even get prosecuted without hate crimes enhancements. This legislation sends a strong message about our society's values that will help prosecute criminals.

  3. Making the punishment fit the crime: Hate crimes enhancements recognize the fact that hate crimes hurt the victim more than a non-hate motivated parallel crime. A University of California at Davis study found that:

    lesbian and gay survivors of hate crimes during the past 5 years showed more signs of psychological distress - including depression, stress, and anger - than did lesbian and gay survivors of comparable non-bias-motivated crimes in the same time period.

    Not only did the hate crime survivors have more psychological symptoms after their attacks, the researchers also found that:

    Crime-related psychological problems dropped substantially among survivors of non-bias crimes within approximately two years after the crime. Hate crime victims, however, continued to have higher levels of depression, stress, and anger for as long as 5 years after their victimization occurred.

    The study hypothesized that the hate crimes victims took longer to recover because the attack was not for something superficial - it was an attack on part of their identity - and because they could not change their habits to avoid a future attack (they're stuck being queer).

    Punishments need to be proportionate to the damage caused by the perpetrator in order to be just. When it takes someone more than twice as long to recover from the crime, prosecutors and judges need tools like this legislation to make sentencing reflect that.

  4. More victims should mean more time: Hate crimes legislation recognizes that hate crimes are attacks on entire communities and not just one person. When someone commits such a crime, as when five marines threw nerve gas into a gay bar, they aren't out to get one specific person. They want to hurt as many people as possible of a certain identity, and they use a hate crime as an act of terrorism against a whole group of people. From the HRC(pdf):

    A 2006 Harris Interactive poll found that 64 percent of gays and lesbians are concerned about being the victim of a bias-motivated crime.

    If that's not terrorism, then I don't know what is.

    Any crime against a group of people deserves tougher sentencing than if it were against one person. If someone beat up a group of people instead of just one, s/he would get a tougher sentence. Since threatening people with violence is a crime, a hate crime against one gay person is a crime, to a lesser extent but greater cumulative extent, against all gay people. Such crimes should be punished based on the extent of the damage.

If you can think of anything else, feel free to add it in the comments.

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This helps me a lot - thanks.