The Case for Hate Crimes Legislation

The idea of prosecuting hate crimes has always seemed vaguely distasteful, but this sort of thing gives me pause (via):

Like countless other Americans that night, a group of young Staten Island men gathered on Nov. 4 to watch election results, and then took to the streets when it became clear that the country had elected its first black president.

But, the authorities say, they were not out to celebrate. Armed with a police-style baton and a metal pipe, they attacked a black teenager, pushed another black man, harassed a Hispanic man and, in a finishing flourish, ran over a white man who they thought was black, leaving him in a coma, the authorities said.

Given the racially charged nature of these attacks, I think the argument for hate crimes prosecution is reasonably persuasive. Targeting racial or religious minorities incurs serious psychological harms that may warrant additional punishment. I suppose it’s possible to argue that quantifying psychological or emotional injury is extremely subjective and therefore shouldn’t be parsed in a courtroom, but plaintiffs seek financial redress for emotional damages all the time. So if we’re going to let people to sue for monetary compensation, shouldn’t we implement a similar calculus to punish racially-charged attacks?

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6 Comments

Filed under Race, The Courts

6 responses to “The Case for Hate Crimes Legislation

  1. clint

    pretty sure that’s a strong argument for tort reform, not in favor of hate crime minimums…

  2. A fair point, but even if you think it’s a bad analogy, the fact remains that prosecuting hate crimes isn’t an attempt to penalize racist thought. It’s an attempt to quantify the psychological or emotional harms of racially-motivated attacks.

  3. clint

    methinks you’re having a bit of trouble distinguishing between civil and criminal law. in the election day embarassment you linked to, civil action, including compensatory damages, seems likely. i am not sure, on the other hand, how you can quantify that is criminal terms (a-2-years-of-additional-imprisonment racist seems inadequate/improper).

  4. I understand the distinction between criminal and civil law, but I’m not sure why the courts are *only* able to assign monetary penalties for emotional or psychological damages. In other words, if the courts are capable of quantifying psychological harm in a civil context, why can’t they take a similar approach to punishment in criminal trials?

  5. clint

    i think the problem is that the legislation required to reflect a delicate consideration of hate in criminal statutes is impossible, so instead the result is a one-size-fits-all minimum that is designed to solely penalize the hate speech that accompanies the crime (rather than quantifying psychological harm). I can, in a rather awkward, Judge Judy sort of a way, understand the sort of monetary formula for emotional compensation. I can’t, on the other hand, comprehend how that same sliding scale could be developed for criminal law, jail time, or victim empowerment. It goes without saying that the first amendment and practical problems of implementation are even stronger objections to hate crime legislation.

  6. As a general proposition, I think laws are best administered at the local level, so I think you’re right that mandatory federal sentencing guidelines are pretty undesirable. That said, I think there’s a case to be made in favor of hate crime statutes at the state and local level.

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