Hate Crime Legislation: Rolling Back Equality

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The last several years have seen an increased push for enhanced or expanded hate crime legislation, especially as it pertains to the LGBT community. The mother of Matthew Shephard, who was brutally murdered in Wyoming, has been pushing for expanding the federal hate crimes definition to include crimes committed against gays. While on the surface it seems like a good idea to include the LGBT community in the definition of hate crimes, the reality of hate crime legislation is that it promotes an inequality within the justice system and creates ever-increasing complications of process.

Hate crime legislation has, at its heart, a good intention. It is, however, a classic example of a good idea run amuck. The problem with our criminal justice system as it now stands is that it’s too complex; there are too many loopholes, categories and classes of criminal activity. As a friend of mine once put it: Why are there three degrees of murder when there is only one degree of dead? Hate crime legislation pushes that complexity to an even more ridiculous extreme. Not only are jurors tasked with determining whether or not the accused committed the crime, they get the added burden of determining why. How does this promote equality?

True equality within the context of the judicial system wouldn’t care why a crime was committed, or against whom. If a person (of any race, creed, color, status, gender, or orientation, et al) commits a crime against another person (of any race, creed, color, status, gender, or orientation, et al) that person should face a sentence equivalent to any other person in that situation. All the classifications in the previous sentence should be completely irrelevant.

Granted, that’s not how our system currently operates. In any system that involves people, the inherent biases of those people will play a part. As a result, crimes committed by people of color tend to carry heavier sentences than crimes committed by rich white males. Crimes committed against people of color, the poor, or gays tend to be mitigated by some imagined circumstance and generally don’t carry the same punishment as would crimes committed against straight whites. That is an unfortunate truth. What is also unfortunate is that we can’t simply legislate that attitude away, which is what hate crime legislation attempts to do. Instead of simplifying the process, it only adds another layer of complexity which leads to an even greater level of inequality within the system.

What happened to Matthew Shephard was an abomination, and the individuals responsible should face life imprisonment for what they did. They planned to beat and rob another human being, and they did. In the process of doing so, they killed him. Even without a “Hate Crime Enhancement,” that is a first-degree murder charge that can carry a life sentence. In a perfect world that is what they’d get. Unfortunately, the world we live in is not a perfect place and a societal bias against gays has played a role here, and will do so in future cases. Hate crime legislation seems like an expedient way to address this inequality, but the expedient path is rarely the correct one.

Attitudes, however, can change. One shining positive example is the recent acquittal of D.J. Bell in Salt Lake City.  Bell, accused of kidnapping a neighbor’s children, and severely beaten (allegedly) by the neighbor and his family, was acquitted of the kidnapping. A jury listened to the evidence, overcame any potential bias against a gay man and decided that his actions on that night were justified. One positive example in a sea of negativity, but every drop has the potential to create that ripple that will lead to a flood of change.

The one true solution is to create a society in which we are all equal, and to have those attitudes shared not only in law, but in the hearts and minds of the people. That is a long road. While our society has made great strides along this road over the past half century, a great deal of work remains. Our legislation, however, should only serve to enforce equality. Providing inequalities within the system will only serve to push back the advances that have been made on the road to true equality.

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