Justice Doesn't Require Vengeance by Bill Dobbs

From William A. Percy
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Justice Doesn’t Require Vengeance by Bill Dobbs

Over the last few decades, advocacy groups and politicians have raised a cry over the need for laws to fight hate crime. Legislation in many states, like New Jersey, now mandates longer prison terms for those convicted of even nonviolent crimes when it can be shown that bias was a motive.

But hate crime prosecutions can be hard to figure. Tensions over who should be covered have increased as even members of groups that were supposed to be protected by such laws are sometimes being prosecuted under them. In Boston, three lesbians are facing bias charges for allegedly attacking a gay man. Is this what legislators had in mind?

Hate crime legislation is fraught with dangers to cherished constitutional principles including equality before the law. From assault to first degree murder, criminal laws are calibrated based on intent, i.e., what the accused is trying to accomplish. Hate crime laws, however, give motive -- the reason an act was done -- a central courtroom role. Defendants can be tried not only for misdeeds but also for what they believe, improperly allowing evidence of personal character to influence these cases.

Are these statutes necessary? Existing criminal laws cover every victim, revered or reviled alike. Hate crime laws selectively recriminalize acts that are already crimes; crimes against certain victims are punished more severely, typically when bad words are in the mix. In the eyes of the law, one person’s broken jaw becomes more important than another’s.

Seeking another pound of flesh has us veering toward vengeance rather than justice. While racism and homophobia, for example, are deplorable prejudices, social problems cannot be solved with more prison time. Combating hate crime will require changing public and police attitudes. Criminal laws long on the books, applied judiciously, are plenty; pushing for new legislation is a problematic approach.

Bill Dobbs is a longtime gay activist and civil libertarian.

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