In the early 1980s, a new category of crime appeared in the criminal law lexicon. In response to concerted advocacy-group lobbying, Congress and many state legislatures passed a wave of "hate crime" laws requiring the collection of statistics on, and enhancing the punishment for, crimes motivated by certain prejudices. This book places the evolution of the hate crime concept in socio-legal perspective. James B. Jacobs and Kimberly Potter adopt a skeptical if not critical stance, maintaining that legal definitions of hate crime are riddled with ambiguity and subjectivity. No matter how hate crime is defined, and despite an apparent media consensus to the contrary, the authors find no evidence to support the claim that the United States is experiencing a hate crime epidemic--instead, they cast doubt on whether the number of hate crimes is even increasing. The authors further assert that, while the federal effort to establish a reliable hate crime accounting system has failed, data collected for this purpose have led to widespread misinterpretation of the state of intergroup relations in this country.
The book contends that hate crime as a socio-legal category represents the elaboration of an identity politics now manifesting itself in many areas of the law. But the attempt to apply the anti-discrimination paradigm to criminal law generates problems and anomalies. For one thing, members of minority groups are frequently hate crime perpetrators. Moreover, the underlying conduct prohibited by hate crime law is already subject to criminal punishment. Jacobs and Potter question whether hate crimes are worse or more serious than similar crimes attributable to other anti-social motivations. They also argue that the effort to single out hate crime for greater punishment is, in effect, an effort to punish some offenders more seriously simply because of their beliefs, opinions, or values, thus implicating the First Amendment.
Advancing a provocative argument in clear and persuasive terms, Jacobs and Potter show how the recriminalization of hate crime has little (if any) value with respect to law enforcement or criminal justice. Indeed, enforcement of such laws may exacerbate intergroup tensions rather than eradicate prejudice.
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Beginning in the mid-1980s, Americans were told that "hate crime" was on the rise throughout the nation. Numerous advocacy groups lobbied for--and achieved--the passage of laws specifically engineered to document the rise in hate crime and dole out extra punishment for perpetrators who chose their victims on the basis of race, ethnic group, religion, or sexual orientation. But were these legislative efforts necessary?
James B. Jacobs and Kimberly Potter suggest not. They argue that the definitions of "hate crime" are often too vague to be meaningful. They cite the case of a black man who robbed white people simply because he believed they had more money than blacks and who did not abuse whites with racial invective as he committed his crimes, as an example. Jacobs and Potter point out that "whether or not the authors of hate crime legislation meant to cover [such] offenders, these are the individuals who dominate the statistics." They then analyze the statistical data and find no evidence supporting the belief that hate-instigated violence is on the rise; they also find that the majority of reported hate crimes are low-level offenses such as vandalism and "intimidation." Brutal assaults and murders, while they may provide grist for media sensationalists, are rare.
Jacobs and Potter also argue convincingly that the development of hate-crime legislation arises from the identity politics movements which have gained strength since the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Essentially, according to their line of reasoning, claims of the existence of a hate-crime epidemic and laws punishing hate crimes serve two purposes. One, they allow minorities to express outrage at the way they are being treated by society. Two, they allow nonminorities to act as if they understand minorities' pain and reaffirm the uncontroversial belief that prejudice and bigotry are wrong. But crime, the authors suggest, is not simply "a subcategory of the intergroup struggles between races, ethnic groups, religious groups, genders, and people of different sexual orientations." Hate-crime laws may even, they warn, exacerbate perceived differences rather than create harmony.
Hate--or, more accurate, bigotry--is wrong. Crime is also wrong. But Jacobs and Potter make a convincing argument against considering crime tinged with bigotry worse than unadulterated crime. "The enforcement of generic criminal law," they conclude, "is adequate to vindicate the interests of 'hate crime' victims as it is of other crime victims."About the Author:
James B. Jacobs, Director of New York University's Center for Research in Crime and Justice, is Professor of Law at the NYU School of Law. Kimberly Potter, formerly a Senior Research Fellow at NYU's Center for Research in Crime and Justice, is now in private law practice in Bronxville, NY.
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