Harsher penalties seem like the natural response to hate crimes, but they may not be the most effective. Liam Glen writes on the dispute over how to deal with crimes of bias.

Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas recently came out in support for state-level hate crime legislation. He sees this as a response to the growing presence of white supremacist groups in the state.

Along with Georgia, South Carolina, and Wyoming, Arkansas is one of the few states that does not already add tougher penalties for crimes committed on the basis of race, religion, and similar factors.

Often, the main thing holding these laws back is the question of what should be covered. In Arkansas and other states, religious right groups rally against any protection based sexual orientation or gender identity.

But once the protected classes are agreed upon, there is usually little question that stronger sentencing is the best response to hate crimes. In reality, however, we know far less than we should about the effectiveness of these laws.

No Clear Conclusions

The central logic behind stronger sentencing is that hate crimes are especially repugnant and thus require special attention. This assertion itself is not without controversy.

Some conservatives and libertarians argue that defendants should be punished based on their actions rather than their intentions. In turn, advocates of these laws point out that hate crimes take a particularly heavy toll on victims and their communities.

In any case, the purpose of harsher penalties should be to discourage hate crimes. As the logic of deterrence goes, someone who might otherwise be inclined to graffiti a swastika on a Synagogue or attack someone based on their race might decide not to if they will face greater consequences.

However, evidence for this is lacking, and experts are divided on whether hate crime laws actually decrease hate crimes. After all, the types of people who commit hate crimes are not usually the types of people who think rationally about the consequences of their actions.

In particular, crimes like vandalism and assault already carry criminal penalties regardless of the perpetrator’s intentions. And even when incidents are prosecuted as hate crimes, it is difficult to prove the defendant’s motives in a court of law.

Another argument for hate crime legislation is that it encourages victims to report incidents by sending a message that authorities take hate crimes seriously. Again, however, evidence is scant.

Even with current legislation, the process for reporting hate crimes is a mess. The FBI’s numbers, collected from police agencies, are useless as many agencies simply fail to report. Meanwhile, surveys by the Justice Department estimate an average of 250,000 hate crimes per year, the majority of which go unreported.

A Deeper Conversation

Without clear evidence that tougher penalties discourage hate crimes, groups like the Anti-Defamation League usually focus on their role in maintaining social stability. Hate crimes have ripple effects, stoking fear and resentment within communities. Harsher punishments make people feel that justice is being served.

In response, civil libertarians argue that simply keeping perpetrators behind bars for a few extra years does nothing to address the root causes of the problem.

Eliminating hate crime laws altogether, as some advocate, would certainly be hasty and unwise. But we should be asking questions, something that would be helped by better research and data collection. Given the rate of incidents that still go unreported, we also must do a better job of enforcing existing laws.

Above all, however, if our main goal is to decrease hate crimes, we need a more nuanced solution than criminal penalties.

Liam Glen

Liam Glen is Generation Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today. He is studying Political Science with minors in Sustainability Studies and Conflict Management at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill....