I READ with concern about the "victory" last Wednesday when the State
Senate finally approved a hate-crimes bill virtually assuring that the measure
will become law this year. As a Latina lesbian working for an organization that
provides services to people who have been arrested and incarcerated, I am very
aware of and deeply concerned about the escalating violence against our
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of color are doubly
vulnerable to hate crimes. We experience violence in our families and our
communities, from our police force and in prison. Some of this violence is
documented while some is invisible: young people who face routine violence in
schools and foster care; homophobic violence in juvenile detention centers and
prison; and police abuse of the transgendered, including unwarranted arrests
and police harassment.
The cornerstone of both the Senate and Assembly legislation is enhanced
criminal penalties for hate crimes-that is, crimes spurred by bias against
members of various specific groups.
The Senate version calls for increased penalties of three years for
low-level felonies and increases of 10 or more years for serious felonies in
cases where hate crimes are proved. The Assembly bill adds four years to
sentences. We would thus be extending the harsh criminal penalties already in
effect in New York: Graffiti writing carries a one- year sentence, vandalism a
seven-year maximum sentence, violent assault can result in 25 years behind bars
and murder faces the possibility of the death penalty. These extended
penalties will not work.
Enhanced criminal penalties rely on a criminal-justice system that is
racist and is increasingly punitive. This year, the U.S. prison population has
reached 2 million, representing a full quarter of the world's incarcerated. In
New York State, 51 percent of the inmate population is African American and 32
percent Latino. New York mirrors national statistics regarding incarceration of
people of color, with one in three African-American men in their twenties
being under some type of criminal- justice supervision.
There is no assurance that the hate-crimes legislation would not be used
against the same group of people that it is supposedly intended to protect. In
fact, the Civil Rights Committee of the New York City Bar Association has
issued a report that, although it agrees with the underlying purpose of the
bills, expresses concerns about "possible unintended consequences of selective
enforcement of bias-crime remedies" and suggests that this legislation could
lead to further incarceration of African-American and Hispanic men.
There is no evidence that enhanced penalties will prevent hate crime. We
can look at examples of other criminal penalties and their effect on crime. New
York State has some of the harshest drug laws in the country -the Rockefeller
drug laws. Adopted in 1973, these laws have resulted in a prison explosion. In
1973, when the laws were adopted, 12,500 people were behind bars. That number
has climbed to more than 71,000 today. Yet, drug usage and sales have continued
to rise in spite of this tough "message" about the evils of drugs.
Those convicted of first-degree murder in New York now face the death
penalty. It is clearly documented that the death penalty has no impact on
murder rates except for increasing state-sanctioned death. Yet we have adopted
the death penalty because of the "message" it sends to society. And there is no
evidence that hate crimes have been reduced in the states and localities that
have enacted laws requiring enhanced criminal penalties.
Finally, supporting enhanced criminalization of hate crime drives a wedge
between the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender movement and social justice-prison
reform movements working toward reduced reliance on incarceration to solve
complicated social problems.
We can find effective ways to reduce violence against our communities
without relying on enhanced criminalization. Instead of demanding enhanced
criminal penalties, we should ask New York State to provide alternatives to
incarceration programs, providing the hate-crime perpetrator with
community-service programs, counseling and education under court supervision.
We should pass laws requiring better police education, particularly
regarding violence against transgendered people and other marginalized groups;
pass the Dignity for All Students Act, which addresses hate and violence at an
early age in our educational institutions; require hate- crime data collection
and reporting by law enforcement agencies; and increase funding to
organizations that offer help to victims of hate crimes. And, as a movement, we
must continue to educate and mobilize against racism, homophobia and
transphobia, to study the causes of violence and evaluate effective prevention
Once behind bars, the hate-crime perpetrator is unlikely to get adequate
rehabilitation that will help him or her make the transition back to society.
This perpetrator will one day get out. Will our community be safer when he or
she is released?
Will the passage of a hate-crimes bill that calls for enhanced criminal
penalties make someone think twice before shoving a gay man, before beating up
a man who dresses like a woman, before stabbing a lesbian. Will these laws make
a police officer stop before he abuses a transgendered person?
And will locking the perpetrators up with longer prison sentences do
anything to help ease the pain of the survivors of hate crimes? I believe the
answer to these questions is clearly no. And, if this legislation becomes law,
there is little cause to celebrate.