Are hate-crime laws bad public policy?

Advocates of stiffer penalties for those convicted of so-called "hate crimes" are responding to a legitimate public revulsion against persons who are motivated to attack by their victims' race, ethnicity, sex, disability, religion or sexual orientation.

So 42 U.S. states and the federal government have now enacted such laws.

But a number of criminologists and other experts warn that these laws represent bad public policy - regardless of how well-intentioned they may be.

  • To begin with, they are unnecessary because convictions already result in very severe penalties for heinous crimes - while allowing judges sentencing discretion for
    less serious crimes.

  • A judge who has presided over hundreds of criminal trials for a variety of crimes is in the best position to individualise punishment to fit both the crime and the criminal - and should not be hampered by inflexible sentencing mandates.

  • Knowing prison space is scarce - as it is in many states - a judge may be forced to incarcerate the perpetrator of a hate crime for a longer period than another miscreant who has committed an equally or even more appalling crime.

  • Singling out hate crimes for special treatment has the potential to make the criminal justice system more unwieldy and unfair.

    After all, a killer is still a killer - whether motivated by hate or not. And a death sentence cannot be made harsher than it is.

    Source: Jackson Toby (Rutgers University), "Hate-Crime Laws: What's Not to Like," Weekly Standard, October 30, 2000.

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