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Hate Crimes - How Bias Crimes Differ From Other Crimes

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The justification for bias crime laws turns primarily on the manner in which bias crimes differ from other crimes. Bias crimes cause greater harm than parallel crimes, that is, those crimes that lack a prejudicial motivation but are otherwise identical to the bias crime. This is true on three levels: harm to the individual victim, the victim's group or community, and the society at large.

Bias crimes generally have a more harmful emotional and psychological impact on the individual victim. The victim of a bias crime is not attacked for a random reason (e.g., the person injured during a drive-by shooting) nor for an impersonal reason (e.g., the victim of a violent robbery). Rather the victim of a bias crime is attacked for a specific, personal reason: for example, race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Moreover, the bias crime victim cannot reasonably minimize the risks of future attacks because the victim is unable to change the characteristic that made him a victim in the first place. The heightened sense of vulnerability caused by bias crimes is beyond that normally found in crime victims. Studies have suggested that the victims of bias crimes tend to experience psychological symptoms such as depression or withdrawal, as well as anxiety, feelings of helplessness, and a profound sense of isolation.

The impact of bias crimes reaches beyond the harm done to the immediate victim or victims of the criminal behavior. There is a more widespread impact on the "target community"—that is, the community that shares the race, religion, ethnicity, or other group characteristic of the victim. The target community experiences bias crime in a manner that has no equivalent in the public response to parallel crimes. The reaction of the target community goes beyond mere sympathy with the immediate victim. Members of the target community of a bias crime perceive that crime as if it were an attack on themselves directly and individually.

Finally, the impact of bias crimes may spread beyond the immediate victims and the target community to the general society. This effect may be seen on a number of levels, and includes a spectrum of harms from the very concrete to the most abstract. On the most prosaic level—but by no means least damaging—the isolation effects discussed above have a cumulative effect throughout a community. Members of the community, even those who are sympathetic to the plight of the victim family, may be reluctant to place themselves or their children in harm's way, and will shy away from socializing with the victims, thus exacerbating the problems associated with social isolation.

Bias crimes cause an even broader injury to the general community. Such crimes violate not only society's general concern for the security of its members and their property but also the shared value of equality among its citizens and racial and religious harmony in a heterogeneous society. A bias crime is therefore a profound violation of the egalitarian ideal and the antidiscrimination principle that have become fundamental not only to the American legal system but to American culture as well. Indeed, when a legislature defines the groups that are to be included in a bias crime law, it unavoidably makes a normative statement as to the role of certain groups or characteristics. Bias crime laws are concerned with those characteristics that implicate social fissure lines, divisions that run deep into the social history of a culture. Thus every bias crime law in the United States includes race as a category; racial discrimination, with its earliest roots in slavery, is the clearest example of a social fissure line in American society. Strong cases can similarly be made for the other classic bias crime categories—color, ethnicity, religion, and national origin. When a state legislature debates the inclusion of other categories to its bias crime law, the debate is partly over the place of those groups in society. Drafting the scope of a bias crime law is necessarily a process that includes the locating of social fissure lines.

Hate Crimes - Scope Of The Problem [next] [back] Hate Crimes - Elements Of Bias Crimes

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