Hate Crimes and the homeless

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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16 Responses

  1. And I’ve heard of (rare) cases where homeless are lit on fire or beaten, essentially just for being transients.

    Right – and the people who do that should be prosecuted for it. But why should the crime be treated as any more serious simply because of the motivation? Why should the penalty for lighting a homeless person on fire be any more serious than the penalty for doing the same to, say, me?

    (And note that I think the penalty should be QUITE serious in BOTH cases.)Report

  2. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    John – again, I’m not saying that I’m sold either way on these debates. I’m gathering the arguments before I make my mind off up. The problem I have with people who argue for “rights” in general (like Sullivan in many instances) is when they then write off some other group of people so quickly. Pick and choose, you know? But again, I’m on the fence here. Intent seems key, and if the intent is to hurt somebody out of pure hatred – well, that seems somehow very different than if they do it for some other reason (though, to be fair, what other reason one could have for lighting another human being on fire is beyond me).Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    If our assault/attempted murder laws are insufficient to deal with lighting-people-on-fire-attacks (we need a better name than that for the 6 O’Clock news… “forced ‘nam protests”? “Icarus downs”? Something more mundane and just call them “pyrotaks”?), is the best way to deal with the problem to create a new law dealing with only one subset of society?

    Why not revamp assault/attempted murder law to better handle pyrotaks?Report

  4. Avatar JPB says:

    The opposition to the legislation isn’t about punishing the guilty–or even enhanced sentencing. In fact, when the bill was last debated in 2007, the house subcommittee in charge of the bill heard testimony from law enforcement agents and a victim of a “hate crime.” Everyone agreed that the people who had perpetrated the hate crimes in question had been caught and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law–with very lengthy prison sentences. What this legislation actually does is make an end-run around double-jeopardy by federalizing local crimes and get the federal government’s hand in local investigations in spite of the fact that not one of the state or local officials has testified that the local authorities actually *require* the aid. They, of course, will take the money , er, help.

    It also goes beyond simple mens rea and opens the door to investigate past utterances to be used to conjecture what someone was thinking–loosening any common sense restrictions on motive. We are moving perilously close to trying to establish thought-crimes.Report

  5. Intent seems key, and if the intent is to hurt somebody out of pure hatred – well, that seems somehow very different than if they do it for some other reason …

    But the issue isn’t even “hatred” per se; rather, it’s whether the victim is hated because he’s homeless. And it’s massively unclear, to say the very least, why the fact that the criminal hates the victim qua homeless person or homosexual rather than, say, qua rich person or wearer of furs should make a whit of difference in how serious we judge his crime.Report

  6. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Good points all. Thanks.

    (No, you’re not going to get any fight out of me on this one. I think hate crimes have served a purpose in the past, and namely during the civil rights movement, but I’m not sure they’re necessary anymore.)Report

  7. ‘Tis the slippery slope of singling out certain members of our society for special protections.Report

  8. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    So what about “hate” crimes being broadly applied to anyone who was the victim of a crime based solely on hate. We already make exceptions for all sorts of various intents. What if there were no limits – as in, black people, gays, and the homeless were all treated exactly same as anyone else….? Sort of like how pre-meditated crimes generally face harsher punishment than off the cuff crimes. It does seem that it should matter why someone is hurt or killed.Report

  9. I agree intent matters but not sure that motivation does, unless it’s in mitigation (they’re about to kill you and a torch is your only handy weapon). Not sure why “I hate bums” is any worse a motivator than “I find lighting people on fire amusing.”

    Sidebar – Your commenters are much more Gravatar-friendly than mine, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s the Gravatar signup?Report

  10. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Is this a solution looking for a problem, in this case?

    Have there been a number of pyrotaks against the homeless resulting in acquittals? Inadequate sentences being handed out to alleged pyrotackers in cases where the homeless are pyrotackees?Report

  11. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    James – I edited the CSS to make the gravatars fit in this particular manner. The theme itself didn’t come with any gravatar capabilities so I had the option to write it in myself and yeah, it looks pretty good I think….thanks.Report

  12. Avatar sidereal says:

    Surely the animating impulse in these crimes isn’t ‘hatred’ towards homeless people, or at least not usually. Homeless people are targeted because they’re easy targets. They’re available (being in the street), they’re often mentally ill, and they often have no one to turn to when under threat. I’m not sure how that squares with a hate crime law. I think the desire for hate crimes legislation stems from a fear of being the target of impersonal assault. Essentially, being targeted for something you have no control over. Nearly all property crime is impersonal, of course, but people seem to have a particular fear of impersonal violence.

    If anyone is aggregating a poll, I’m opposed. I don’t like hate crime legislation in general, on the principle that less law is better barring a compelling need, and I believe existing criminal law handles hate crimes without compelling additional need.Report

  13. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Rephrased more seriously:

    Is the problem when it comes to attacks on the homeless really something likely to be fixed by additional laws?

    I’ve no doubt that the biggest problem when it comes to attacks on the homeless have to do with the fact that the homeless are troubled in the first place. Let’s say that one is murdered. How long is it likely before the body is found? How much effort is the police really going to put into trying to find the attacker in the absence of people calling the detective every day asking for updates? Given the sheer number of crimes that happen every day, how likely is it that a detective or officer is likely to move the file to “cold cases” and work on the crime involving a taxpayer whose cousin is a lawyer or whose sister-in-law works downtown with the spouse of one of the Assistant DAs?

    The hate crime seems to be a way to say “Hey! Look! We’re doing something to help this particularly pitiful and overlooked segment of society!” that will, in reality, do nothing to help with the aforementioned problems.

    It just says “see? We’re doing something!” when, really… they aren’t.Report

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