Thursday, September 09, 2004

Taking hate crimes serously

One of the more common arguments made against hate-crime laws is the notion that, because they have been avidly supported by civil-rights and minority advocacy groups, they represent primarily "identity politics" whose sole purpose is to appease aggrieved groups.

Longtime readers (as well as those who've read Death on the Fourth of July) know that I've discussed previously the broader reality -- which is that hate-crime laws actually enjoy serious support from communities and local officials who are trying to grapple with the manifestations of these crimes. These smaller entities often lack the political or PR punch of larger advocacy groups, and so their roles are often obscured; but in fact, many hate-crimes laws originate not with "identity politics" but with real grass-roots needs.

This was driven home recently in northern Kentucky, where a local prosecutor is calling for a tougher state law in the wake of a series of incidents in her district:
Boone County Attorney Linda Tally Smith is pushing for tougher penalties at the state level in the wake of the cross burning at the home of the African-American family in Burlington that led to Frederick Mahone, his wife and two teenage children moving out of Burlington and out of the county.

Smith said the cross burning was the first hate crime in the area since she began working here 10 years ago. She said she was surprised at limitations of the state law.

Under current state law, the men charged -- Matthew Scudder, 18, of Hebron; Jimmy Foster, 19, of Independence; and two juveniles -- would only face misdemeanor criminal mischief and criminal trespass with one year in jail and possibly denial of probation or parole if they are convicted and a judge determines the crimes were motivated by bias.

"It's frustrating from a prosecutor's point-of-view when you have to tell a victim you can't do anything for them," Smith said.

The Burlington case was turned over to the FBI and categorized as felony civil rights violations. The men charged face 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines if convicted.

Smith is researching penalty enhancement statutes in other states and working with city officials and legislators in Frankfort to strengthen the penalties for hate-motivated crimes. One approach she is exploring involves ratcheting up penalty for a crime in which hate plays a role just as offenders in possession of firearms during a drug arrest would face harsher penalties than those without firearms. That could help nullify the need to hand such cases over to federal courts.

"We should be equipped to handle it at either level (state or federal)," Smith said.

Kentucky, it should be noted, has a notoriously weak hate-crime statute, and Smith's crusade for an effective law that can actually be put to use is only a matter of common sense. And Smith, it should be noted, is a Republican.

I was, however, struck by something my friend Mark Potok said in this story:
Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's intelligence report, said he sees some value in enhancing penalties for hate crimes but in the long run doesn't believe they will deter the crime.

"They are a good thing in the sense that it is a declaration that these crimes are a detriment to society," Potok said.

But, he doubts those committing such crimes will stop to consider possible sentencing.

I think Mark would probably agree that the laws are needed if for no other reason than to give these communities effective tools for countering them. The salutary effect of one hate-crime perpetrator's extended sentence can in fact make another would-be perp -- particularly a "reactive" offender -- think twice.

However, he is exactly right that the laws alone are not enough to prevent these crimes. What has been proven to be effective is high-profile community repudiation of white supremacist activities and especially hate crimes. As I've mentioned previously, the public protests, marches and demonstrations against hate crimes often come wrapped in PC flavorings, but they in fact play significant roles in deterring would-be hate criminals, who almost uniformly believe that their attempts to drive out "outsiders" -- which in the end is what hate crimes are about -- actually have the implicit support of their communities.

Because silence is interpreted as assent, communities that do nothing run the risk of encouraging serious and potentially devastating violence. And for that reason alone, standing up to hate crimes is a simple matter of good common sense.

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