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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Maddow Talks with Judy Shepard

Visit the Matthew Shepard Foundation - which deserves your support.

My truckbuddies know that I've several times wondered out loud in this blog, how exactly does a hate-crime law protect anyone? Andrew Sullivan quotes a reader over at his place on this subject:

I believe the left has abandoned its principles here in same way that the right abandoned it's principles on torture. Outside of the issue of hate crimes, you will find progressive thinkers opposed to slapping on more jail time as a solution to everything. This is why, they say, you will find overcrowded prisons costing the state in terms of upkeep and lost economic potential. Moreover, they say, long prison sentences automatically imposed (by such laws as the three strikes rule) take justice out of context and only contribute to the problem.

Why, then, do these same people suddenly want to throw away the key for those who inflict pain on others from prejudice? Is it because they think the prison system works for bigots where it fails everyone else? This is a profound contradiction that at least requires explanation.
Sullivan responds:
There is a real debate about the 20/20 story and, for the sake of balance, you can read the critiques of it here and here. I should be clear: I do not for a minute believe that the bigotry behind the Matthew Shepard murder was a hoax. I think it was murkier and more complicated - i.e. more human - than some want it to be. Of course, if you believe that his murderers deserved the maximum sentence because they brutally murdered someone, and not because they were meth-fueled bigots, it doesn't matter. I want the same laws against the same acts enforced equally on everyone. If police don't enforce the law equally, get on their case. But leave the laws alone.
Which of course raises the question that Sullivan conveniently leaves to the reader's imagination: how exactly do you "get on their case" and who exactly would do that?

Maddow in her introduction suggests that the federal hate-crimes law gives the feds - presumably through the Justice Department, it's lawyers, investigators, and marshals - the power to "get on the case" where civil rights are ignored by local police and prosecutors. Does it really work that way? I'll have to do some more reading and thinking on that.


Anonymous said...

Full disclosure: I am the reader that Andrew is quoting in that blog.

I would argue that the media (and bloggers such as yourself) can "get on the case" by exposing every instance of disproportionate justice that can be found. Police departments of the past were forced to reform out of sheer embarrassment and the resulting pressure from elected leaders who want the bad press to go away.

Organizations like the ACLU can also sue in civil court for a variety of reasons, including failure to prosecute or failure to arrest when on the scene of real crimes.

I'll grant that those two solutions do require a certain amount of faith in the state actors. However, if you believe that the laws are being applied unequally due to a bigoted police force and judiciary, then you also can't expect those same groups to enforce hate crime legislation, anyway. At the very least, then, such laws are a wash.

Russ Manley said...

Thanks for stopping by, Rico, appreciate the comment.

I think you're right to say that government officials respond more vigorously to cases with high media attention - and now with the blogosphere, there's opportunity for many people outside the MSM to raise a hue and cry, too.

But I'm not sure it's wise to think, Oh well let the public monitor the local situation, and all will be well. When justice is nobody's particular responsibility, nobody *has* to keep an eye on things, which might mean a lot of injustice gets swept under the rug - especially in remote areas and small towns, like mine; I've seen how these things work.

I haven't done as much reading as I should on this subject - my mind is still not made up. Apparently, though, one benefit of the hate-crimes law is that the feds can get involved, which means money to conduct investigations, a big help in small towns with fewer resources. It also means if the local yokels aren't doing their job, you can pick up the phone and call the feds, and then they have to get involved, where otherwise there might be no one else who is obligated to do so.

But important as that help may be, my question is, do these hate crimes laws do anything to prevent the crimes in the first place? There have been such laws against hate crimes on minorities, women, etc. for decades, but I'm wondering what the effect is on prevention, not prosecution.

Do people - mostly, I suspect, young or youngish agressive males - inclined to commit such acts stop and say, Oh shoot, I can't do this, there's a special law against it? I rather doubt it.

Which may be missing the point; there have always been laws against murder, assault, etc. but those crimes still happen. So apart from practical help with prosecutions, perhaps the value of a hate crimes law is largely symbolic, an expression of society's collective abhorrence of such things. But whether more laws make a community more safe - prevent crime, not just extend a punishment - that's the deeper question, seems to me, and I don't have the answer yet.

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