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Repeal Hate Crimes Laws?

I've been considering the question of whether or not we should repeal hate crimes laws -- laws that can add years to a criminal's sentence if he or she is convicted of a crime motivated by the victim's race, religion, gender, national origin or sexual orientation. At first, it may seem that 'hate crimes' are especially reprehensible since the motivation for them comes from ideologies that most of us have been taught to despise: irrational, unfounded beliefs of racial/gender/etc. superiority. And their intent is not only to do harm, but to put the other in his/her/their place, to intimidate other members of the target group.

But some of this apparent extra-reprehensibility might be due to the kind of crimes we are comparing hate crimes to, especially if we are thinking of them only in the context of general crime. But to be fair, we need to compare hate crimes to similar, non-hate crimes that have many of the same elements. So let's go for two hypothetical cases:

(A) - The Hate Crime.
Some white-trash Nazi-wannabe punks break into the home of a Black family. They savagely beat the teenage son who had fallen asleep while reading a book and then wreck the house, writing racial slurs, insults, threats, and the like all over the walls.

(B) - The Non-Hate Crime
Two brothers break into the home of the Smith family, whose financial success and high social standing they are very jealous of (the Smiths have never met them or harmed them in any way). They savagely beat the teenage son who had fallen asleep while reading a book and then wreck the house, writing insults and threats directed at the Smith family all over the walls.


The only real difference in these two cases is that A would count as a hate crime, and the perpetrators could be sentenced to extra prison-time for their crimes. The crimes themselves were almost identical. The additional component of intimidation of a group is present in both (in A, a racial group, in B, a family group). The motivation is similar - in A, irrational, unfounded hate for a racial group, and in B, irrational, unfounded hate for a family group.

When considering hate crimes in this way, I learn toward the position that those who commit hate crimes do not deserve more punishment than those who commit similar non-hate crimes. Another way to put this is to say that individuals who commit equivalent non-hate crimes ought to get just as much jail time. There doesn't seem to be any clear reason why a crime is morally worse because it was motivated by hate for a certain group (classified by race, religion, gender, national origin or sexual orientation) rather than hate for some other group or an individual.

This is not to say, of course, that someone who commits a hate-crime assault might not warrant more punishment than someone who commits a normal assault. But the reason should have to do with the crime itself. Intimidation and the making of a threat to others not directly affected is usually an element of a hate crime but not of a personally-motivated assault. The intimidation itself could justify a tougher sentence - but because it is intimidation simply, not because it is intimidation of a certain, specially-considered group. Considering cases in this light rather than from the hate-crimes stance should lead to perpetrators of otherwise equivalent cases (like A and B) to be given the same degree of punishment.

Reasons for Hate-Crimes Laws?
One possible justification of hate-crimes laws is one of prevention. Since there is a specially poignant problem with intimidation and crimes against certain groups in society, hate-crimes laws may be beneficial in helping us reduce these problems.

Following the thought behind this view, it seems that special laws making tougher sentences could be justified for most any crime that because a special problem for society at any given time. If there was a car-jacking epidemic, special laws making the penalties for car-jacking tougher could be warranted, for example.

But I am hesitant to support this view that allows variable penalties to be used as tools for specific social change. On the one hand, this seems prudent and possibly effective. On the other hand, it does not seem that a criminal who happens to commit a crime during a period in which that crime has been targeted for tougher sentencing is any more deserving of punishment than if he had committed the exact same crime at a time during which it was not being given any special consideration.

One might argue that if the criminal is aware that his crime is part of an epidemic (perhaps a car-jacking epidemic), he deserves extra punishment because he is contributing to a trend that causes a great deal of total damage. If lots of people are jacking cars, many cities will have to hire more police or keep them on for extra hours, and both cities and individuals will often take other preventative measures. All of this costs extra money, money that wouldn't be spent if the car-jacking rate was relatively low. So the damage of a single crime in a time during which there is a high rate of that crime (enough to possibly warrant tougher sentencing for it) is higher than the exact same crime during any other time. That seems like a reasonable justification for tougher sentencing.

Still, the amount of additional harm done by car-jackings during a high car-jacking time may not be that great. If the average damage per car-jacking during low times was, let's say, $8,000, that average during high times might only be $8,500. A significant increase - but if the increased sentence was proportional to this increase, that would only mean raising an eight-year sentence to an eight and a half year sentence (or a sixteen year sentence to seventeen). Going by the increased monetary damages caused by such crimes might not warrant any significant increase in sentencing.

There is, of course, the factor of fear and feelings of lost security, which don't necessarily have any easily-evaluated monetary value. Perhaps if increased police patrols during a car-jacking epidemic completely restored everyone's feelings of security, we could go by the cost of those extra patrols. But it is unlikely that anything could fully restore feelings of security until the epidemic ended.

The fear/security "cost" might be especially high for violent hate-crimes directed at specific groups, and this cost might justify significantly tougher penalties. Still, crimes aimed at intimidating groups not specially protected (like in example B) might have equivalent fear/security costs for that group. There would be less people affected, but impact on individuals in smaller groups might be quite a bit higher because of the small group size.

Conclusion?
I don't have one, for now at least. I am more comfortable with hate-crime legislation if it is considered for the purpose of giving additional punishment for the additional harms that certain crimes might have during times in which that crime is especially problematic. If the impact of a crime was truly no different during a high-crime time than in a low-crime time, I would have to say that additional punishments during high-crime time would be unjustified. If hate-crime laws are only aimed to give extra punishment because we really don't like racism and such, they probably aren't justified. But as it seems possible that a hate-crime does more damage than an equivalent non-hate crime, I'm not ruling their justification out just yet.

As always, I welcome opinions and discussion from readers.

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