Should “hate crime” laws currently on the books in 45 US states be abolished?
No doubt crimes committed against people based solely on the victims’ race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation are especially heinous. But are they really worthy of special punishment?
The evidence suggests otherwise.
For one thing, studies of hate crimes laws have found no correlation between these laws and the volume of hate-related crimes since those laws were implemented.
Apparently, attackers don’t take into account the likely consequences of their actions if they’re caught. In fact, there’s no evidence that harsher hate crime sentencing does anything at all to dissuade them.
Second, while highly visible and often shocking, the number of hate crimes is extremely small relative to the volume of crimes overall. The FBI estimated somewhere between 7, 100 and 8,800 hate crimes in 2017 – about half of which were actually crimes against property, not people. Even using this robust figure, the hate crime incidence rate is anemic — about 0.00002 percent or 1 crime in 500,000.
Advocates insist that the number of hate crimes has been rising over the past three years. The figure they typically cite is 17%. However, they fail to note is that the number of law enforcement agencies involved in hate crime collection has mushroomed over this same period. For example, according to the FBI, in 2016 alone, another 1,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide began collecting data on alleged hate crimes. Is the number of these crimes actually increasing or is there only more aggressive, politically-inspired reporting of them?
Even defining what constitutes a hate crime can be highly subjective. The motives behind crimes like murder are often a confusing mix of rage-filled resentments and jealousies, for which race or religion might be as much a pretext as a cause. To substantiate a hate crime, prosecutors generally must prove a direct link to hatred of a group, usually expressed openly by the attacker before or during the attack. Most cases are not that clear-cut.
The Jussie Smollett case, like so many before it, points to another powerful reason hate crime laws have not panned out. They’ve given members of the groups deemed to be victims a weapon for perpetuating hate crime “hoaxes.”
The first of the great hoaxes in recent times was the infamous Tawana Brawley case. In 1987, Brawley, a young Black teenager, claimed that police in upstate New York had attacked her and scrawled racial epithets and smeared feces on her body. Brawly even accused a county prosecutor of being in on the attack. The prosecutor later won a judgment against Brawley, but to date, he’s received only 1% of the damage award.
There’s a reason hate crime hoaxers never get the punishments they so richly deserve. Liberal advocacy groups have found ways of depicting the hoaxes not as expressions of criminal deviance – and even mental illness – but as understandable if misplaced projections of fear and paranoia by groups that are genuine “victims.” Over the years, the argument that hate crime hoaxers undermine the hate crime cause — by making real victims less likely to be believed – has fallen on deaf ears. For liberals, letting hoaxers off the hook is just another form of “social justice.”
It’s worth considering how the entire anti-hate crime movement got started – and the hypocrisy at work. In 1998, when a young gay man, Matthew Shepherd was brutally murdered in Laramie Wyoming, it was widely promoted as a “homophobic” hate crime. Political celebrities like Ted Kennedy expressed outrage and a non-profit foundation established in Shepherd’s honor began receiving millions in donations.
But the real story didn’t fit the gay right’s stereotype. Shepherd, it turned out, was a meth and heroin dealer who’d enjoyed a gay relationship with one of his killers. Their fight was largely a jealous rivalry and a dispute over money. Shepherd was punished brutally by his ex-lover and friend, but he wasn’t simply targeted because he was gay.
The number of hate crime hoaxes is growing – witness the recent spree in Portland, Oregon — and they are increasingly costly. Police spend tens of thousands of dollars chasing after false leads and tying up manpower that could be devoted to actual crime-fighting. And the reputation of these departments is invariably sullied — while no real progress eliminating the incidence of hate crime is made.
The fact is prosecutors do not need hate crime laws to achieve prosecutions of people with certain demographic characteristic who are attacked or murdered. They can simply prosecute the accused under existing laws, which are harsh enough. Hate crime laws are essentially “feel good” gestures that give Republicans and Democrats alike a painless way to suggest their concern about racism and social equality without advocating social policies that might cost them politically.
Some conservatives have suggested that attacks on police officers also be prosecuted as “hate crimes.” This is understandable – but misguided. Attacks on police officers already receive some of the harshest penalties available. Moreover, such an approach only reinforces the misguided logic of the “hate crime” movement, which has allowed the stain of “identity politics” to spill over to our criminal justice system, causing more problems than it solves.
Sponsoring state ballot measures to repeal these laws and to introduce mandatory penalties for hoaxing would be a step in the right direction. President Trump might also issue new federal guidelines. America’s criminal justice system is already one of the fairest in the world. It is essential that we protect it – and the public at large — from those who would exploit it cynically to promote their favorite cause – themselves.