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COLUMN

The Equality of Crime

Guest Column
Clay Martin

A few homophobes strung Matthew Shepard up and left him to die of exposure, and President Clinton called for national hate-crime laws. Three white men dragged James Byrd to his death behind a pickup truck, and the country raised a cry for strengthened hate-crime laws.

In each case, raw emotion and a desire to get even spawned legislation questionable precisely because of its subjective nature. Instead of taking a sober look at the consequences of manipulating the justice system, lawmakers and citizens are using the courts to further a social agenda which seems to punish not only a criminal’s actions, but the opinions and values that influence his actions. The movement for stricter, more inclusive hate-crime laws is a symbolic trend designed to make society feel more accepting, enlightened and sophisticated.

In the murders of Shepard and Byrd, the perpetrators could face death under current laws. Existing laws, if enforced, could provide adequate punishment in situations where prosecutors feel the hate-crime distinction is warranted. But hate-crime laws are not about punishment or equitable justice. They arise from an us-versus-them mentality -- society’s desire to separate itself from racists, homophobes and hatemongers in general. But trebling the consequences for injuring certain classifications of people is an egregious violation of equality under the law. If, as the first line of the Declaration of Independence unequivocally affirms, all men are created equally, then every life should be protected equally under the law, without regard to race, gender or sexual orientation.

The real problem with hate-crime legislation is that it bases punishment not only on the crime, but also on the motive. A criminal’s motive is not a reason for conviction; it is merely a means to conviction. If we have a separate distinction for hate crimes, perhaps other crimes deserve their own designation. Sexual assailants could face harsher penalties for having a sex drive. Robbers could be punished not only for stealing money, but for wanting money. We could have a crime for every Commandment.

Proponents of hate-crime legislation argue that hate crimes require different and more severe punishments because they victimize entire groups of people. But all crimes agitate all of humanity in some way. Every crime increases man’s collective insecurity.

One of the ironic defenses made for hate crimes is that increased penalties will actually decrease criminal activity. Like capital punishment, there is no research that proves hate-crime laws actually decrease crimes against the groups they intend to protect. The same opponents of capital punishment who argue the death penalty does not affect the murder rate also argue that strengthened penalties, as called for under hate-crime legislation, will have a considerable effect on the amount of violence directed at minority groups. The reservations regarding the death penalty -- that it is enforced arbitrarily along racial and sexual lines -- can also be applied to hate-crime laws. In New York State, aggravated assault results in a maximum sentence of 15 days in prison. If the assailant utters a racial slur or similar epithet, the maximum sentence increases to one year in jail. The Supreme Court recently upheld a Wisconsin hate-crime statute that triples the sentence for an assault motivated by prejudice.

Hate crime laws, however, are no longer limited to state jurisdiction. Bills before the House and Senate propose to extend the federal hate-crime act and broaden the groups protected under current legislation to include homosexuals, women and the disabled. If passed, the bill could turn rape and sexual assault into federal hate crimes. It would also mean the federal government could retry any crime supposedly inspired by hate.

Of course, hate crimes legislation will continue to enjoy political support simply because it is difficult to challenge it without being associated with the intended targets of the legislation. Politicians, no matter how tenable the arguments against hate-crime legislation, would never want to be perceived as defending racists, bigots and homophobes. It is an us-versus-them mentality, and no one wants to stand up for “them,” irrespective of what is right.

Clay Martin is a member of the Class of 2002.