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Victims - Hate Crimes And Kindred Laws

percent women penalties murder

Distinctions in the law based on the social position of the victim have long existed. Typically, criminal statutes offered greater protection for those with greater social status. In early English jurisprudence, for example, more stringent penalties were attached to the poisoning of husbands by their wives, while wife-poisoning was regarded as but another form of murder. The former called for burning at the stake; the latter for the more common punishment of hanging.

In the past two decades in the United States there has been a proliferation of laws to further protect potential crime victims who are deemed more in need of or more deserving of such protection. The mechanism purported to ensure additional victim security is tougher penalties. Most notable in this category are hate crimes, proscribed acts that are judicially determined to be motivated by prejudice against a member of a specified group. Beating a homosexual because of his sexual orientation or torching the house of a rabbi because of his faith or ethnicity will likely get the offender(s) a heavier penalty than if the same crimes had been committed, respectively, against a nonhomosexual or a non-Jew (Jacobs and Potter; Jenness and Broad).

This kind of special victim protection is extended to the elderly in some states, and during the summer of 1999 witnesses testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary pled for inclusion of women as a group under hate crime statutes. The witnesses argued that women are less able to protect themselves against male predatory behavior and are an especially vulnerable crime victim group with regard to sexual assault.

This vulnerability of women was underlined by a report in May 1999 of a national survey showing that 17.6 percent of American women have been rape victims at least once during their lifetime, with an additional 14.8 percent being victimized by an attempted rape. Forty-three percent said that they had been slapped or hit at least once in their life, 21.2 percent had been hit with an object, 6.2 percent had been threatened with a gun, and 8.l percent had been the victim of a stalking. In all, more than half of the women surveyed had been victimized by rape, physical assault, and/or stalking.

Critics of hate crime legislation see such efforts as an alliance between some politicians and segments of the electorate and more of a symbolic gesture than a practical measure. Critics argue that the law should inquire only into behavior, not into subjective motives, and point to existing penalties for non-hate crimes as sufficient to deter, or at least adequately punish, those who commit such acts. What good, some insist, is it to add the legal designation of hate crime to the murder of a black man by bigoted youths when there already exists an adequate penalty for murder? Cynics add that the lesson conveyed by the laws is that if you are going to be a sensible criminal your least dangerous course of action is to victimize someone who shares your own background and beliefs.

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