Monday, November 2, 2009

More on hate crime laws

Speaking of hate crimes, Barack Obama recently signed into law the Matthew Shepard Act, which expands hate crime laws to include gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disabilities.

Actually, in my experience, a lot of people in the atheist community tend to oppose hate crime laws. A crime is a crime, they say, whether it is motivated by hate or not. The dividing line between a crime and a hate crime is basically a belief or idea. Should we really be punishing people more harshly just because they hold a particularly hateful belief? Doesn't that come dangerously close to punishing beliefs, infringing on free speech?

As for myself, I will tentatively come down on the side that is supportive of hate crime laws.

Laws and law enforcement should be pragmatic. Laws are not about punishing people for actions they've already done, but preventing them from doing those actions in the first place. When we make a punishment harsher, we're making a trade-off. On the one hand, we're further discouraging the crime from happening in the first place. On the other hand, we're being a little more unfair to the people who end up committing the crime anyways.

I like to think of the benefits of a law being a smooth function of the harshness of the punishment. Somewhere in the middle of that function, there exists a maxima, where the derivative of utility with respect to harshness is zero. Okay, I'll stop with the math now. The point is that there is some happy medium where the law is neither too lenient nor too harsh.

However, this happy medium exists at different places for different kinds of crimes. For example consider the insanity defense. The insanity defense is where the defendant admits the crime, but claims to have been in a mental condition which prevented them from distinguishing right and wrong. When someone makes an insanity defense, they tend to receive softer punishments. Or rather, they get committed to a psychiatric institution, which is just a different kind of "punishment" altogether. Now, I know very little about law, but the rationale seems obvious to me. No matter how harshly you punish the insane, you will never discourage them from being insane. Whatever part of the brain it is that responds to the threat of punishment, that's not the part which causes legally insane people to break the law.

Now contrast with hate crimes. Hate crimes are done willfully, perhaps more willfully than typical crimes. If someone hates a group so much, is normal law going to effectively prevent them from committing crimes against that group? No, because their motivation goes beyond fear of simple legal punishment. Sheer force of will is not so easily stopped. Furthermore, hate crimes typically cause greater damage than the mere actions would indicate. They inspire fear in the entire group, and can have huge negative effects on an entire community. Therefore, the happy medium for hate crime laws is a little more on the harsh side than you would otherwise expect. And that's why it's justified to have harsher laws against hate crimes.

But this is all politics and law, of which I admittedly know very little. I'd be happy to hear opposing points of view, and we can argue about it a bit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hate crimes are often meant to inspire others to commit more hate crimes, as well as instill fear into a group, making them more dangerous than the same crime without the motives. The historical accounts of lynching are one example.