Hate crimes and why funding their prevention is a waste of money
Around midnight on Feb. 1, 2006, a chubby 18-year-old named Jacob Robida walked into Puzzles Lounge, a gay bar in New Bedford, Mass., and ordered a Captain Morgan on the rocks. Sipping his drink, he chatted briefly with the bartender before making his way to the crowded pool table in the back of the room. Unknown to the patrons he was walking toward, the baby-faced Robida was actually a violent neo-Nazi whose baggy black sweatshirt concealed a hatchet, a machete and a 9mm German Army Luger.
By the end of the night, the lively gay bar would be a bloodbath and Robida would be a fugitive from the law, barreling toward the Mexican border in a green Pontiac Grand Am. A subsequent police search of Robida’s New Bedford home would turn up additional Nazi paraphernalia, a MySpace page praising Hitler and racist invective scrawled across the bedroom walls – more than enough evidence for the state to argue that the troubled teen was at least partially driven by homophobic hatred when he shot up Puzzles Lounge that night.
Under Massachusetts law, which mandates harsher sentences for perpetrators of anti-gay violence, Robida’s brutal rampage was a hate-crime, cut and dry. If he hadn’t committed suicide when the police cornered him in northern Arkansas three days later, there is no doubt that he would now be facing a hefty prison sentence. But does that knowledge really comfort Robida’s victims or the rest of the gay community? After all, a piece of legislation doesn’t offer much protection when you’re face-to-barrel with a Nazi-era pistol.
The incident raises a fundamental question – how well do hate crime laws actually work at preventing these crimes?
“Despite supporters’ contention that they will make vulnerable communities safer, there is little proof that the tougher sentencing that comes with hate crime legislation prevent violent crimes against minority groups,” argued Liliana Segura in an Aug. 10 article in the Socialist Worker.
And while hate crime legislation often succeeds at making the politicians who support it feel warm and benevolent inside, it is mournfully ineffective at doing what it’s supposed to. “Since the federal government started keeping statistics in 1990, the number of hate crimes reported annually has consistently ranged around 7,500,” noted Attorney General Eric Holder during an Oct. 18 address to the Anti-Defamation League. This is despite the fact that 45 states have enacted some form of hate crime law since the early 1990s.
Massachusetts is no exception. In 1991, the governor’s office created a special task force in an attempt to combat hate crimes in the state. Despite this, the number of offenses has remained relatively stagnant. In 1991, there were 304 reported hate crimes in Massachusetts according to Mass.gov – compare this with 344 reported in 2005, 364 in 2006, 350 in 2007 and 332 in 2008.
But even with no evidence of improvement, advocates continue to lobby for additional laws. Currently, Massachusetts legislators are considering a bill called “An Act Relative to Gender-Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes” (HB 1728), which mandates harsher punishments for prejudicial crimes against transgendered people. And while this bill may help supporters like Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins sleep better at night, it’s unlikely that it will actually give any additional protection to the transgendered community.
One reason is because these types of bills presume that the current laws are not harsh enough to deter people from committing hate crimes. But this belief is unsubstantiated. In fact, the case studies presented by activists as “proof” of the necessity of hate crime laws almost always show just the opposite. The killers of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. – two victims who prompted the current federal hate crime legislation – were sentenced to life in prison and the death penalty, respectively. And that was without any hate crime laws in place.
“In more than a decade of lobbying for [federal hate crime] law, its supporters have never shown that state officials are letting people get away with murder, or lesser crimes of violence, when the victims belong to historically oppressed groups,” wrote Reason Magazine Editor Jacob Sullum in the New York Post on Oct. 14.
But hate crime activists continue to push pointless legislation, perhaps because having these laws on the books is a sure-fire way to rake in additional government funds. Hate crime laws have resulted in cash flows to state agencies like the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) and the Massachusetts Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth.
But despite the money being pumped into these groups, there has been no conclusive evidence showing that their programming has worked to decrease hate crimes. So why do Massachusetts taxpayers throw money away on programs that don’t work and waste time on legislation that is ineffective?
If hate crimes constituted a critical epidemic in Massachusetts, the haphazard way they are being addressed might make sense. But this clearly is not the case. According to Mass.gov, in 2008, the most serious type of hate crime in Massachusetts was aggravated assault – of which there were 35 committed. Compare that number to the 20,167 non-hate-crime-related aggravated assaults committed in-state during the same year, according to reports by Disastercenter.com.
If hate crime law advocates can’t figure out a way to spend taxpayer funds effectively, then maybe it’s time the state started looking for better uses of the money.
Alana Goodman is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.