Two noted criminal law professors squared off at the Law Center to debate whether hate crime laws provide important protections for certain classes of people – or serve only as “feel good” legislation with little impact on crime or the justice system.
The federal hate crime bill signed into law last November, along with similar laws in a number of states, are “solutions in search of a problem,” according to Prof. James B. Jacobs of New York University Law School and director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice. Jacobs dismisses hate-crime laws as redundant and unnecessary. “Of all the problems we have in the United States, the absence of laws to punish crime is not one of them,” he noted during a luncheon discussion hosted by The Federalist Society.
Hate crime legislation essentially enhances sentencing, doubling or even tripling maximum punishment for certain crimes. Hate crime laws and other legislation such as 3-strike mandatory sentencing “re-criminalize crimes that are already criminalized,” Jacobs said. Penalties for crimes such as murder and rape are already at maximum levels, and sentences for lesser potential hate crimes such as vandalism and graffiti (four years and one year, respectively, in New York) “seem enough to me,” he said.
Sandra Thompson, Law Foundation Professor of Law and director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the Law Center, countered that hate crime laws afford greater protection to classes of people who historically have not been adequately protected by the law. She said targets of hate crimes suffer more serious and longer-lasting effects than victims of other crimes because of a sense that they were “singled out” simply because of who they are. Attacks on individuals can serve as a warning to an entire class of people, she said. “Just as terrorists target us all, these are crimes that target an entire group of people. We all might be in a group that, because of who we are, might need protection.”
Thompson laid part of the blame for hate crimes at the feet of some media and politicians whose reports and fiery speech can demonize certain classes of people – and may incite violent acts against members of these classes.
Thompson said hate crime offenders are not like other criminals and should face stiffer penalties. In her view, they tend to feel justified in their actions, tend to be much more violent, pose a greater danger to society, and are less likely to be rehabilitated. Citing the vicious killings of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, and Matthew Shepard in Wisconsin, Thompson said these types of hate-filled crimes belong in a different category. “Murder just doesn’t really cover these kinds of acts,” she said. Hate crime laws fill an important need, and Thompson noted a precedent for their existence: current sentencing variations that include stiffer penalties for someone who shoots a policeman rather than “just” an average citizen.
He predicted there will be few prosecutions. “It’s feel good policy. Pablum,” he declared.
Jacobs said the push for hate crime legislation was the natural extension of the civil rights agenda (“trying to apply affirmative action to the law”) that saw competing groups lobbying for inclusion under the law. “Crime is a phenomenon that should unite us, not divide us,” he said. “These are laws that are meant to be admired, not really passed to fight crime,” he said, providing politicians with something they can point to while claiming that “we feel your pain.”
Prof. Sandra Thompson makes a point while Prof. James B. Jacobs of NYU Law School listens during a debate on hate crimes laws sponsored by The Federalist Society.
Prof. James B. Jacobs of NYU Law School and Law Center Prof. Sandra Thompson take a question from the audience during a disussion of hate crime laws hosted by The Federalist Society.