Would stronger hate crime laws help prevent violence?

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Authorities in Georgia drew intense criticism this week when they announced the shootings at three Atlanta-area spas that left eight people dead — including six women of Asian descent — may not qualify as a hate crime. The suspect, a white man, told law enforcement he was motivated by a desire to rid himself of “sexual addiction” rather than animus toward Asian women, a spokesman for the local sheriff’s department said.

Hate crime laws are on the books in all but three states. Though the specifics vary, most allow for additional penalties — such as extra years in prison — to be added in cases where a crime was prompted by bias against race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Georgia’s hate crime law, which was enacted just last year after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, adds a minimum of two years in prison to a conviction.

The reluctance of Georgia authorities to consider the shootings a hate crime highlights the high burden of proof that must be met to satisfy most hate crime statutes, legal experts say. Typically, prosecutors must prove that prejudice was a suspect’s primary motivation for committing an attack for it to qualify as a hate crime. In the case of the Atlanta shootings, the suspect’s reported sexual motivation could be enough to preclude a hate crime charge, despite the fact that most of the victims were of the same race and gender.

Why there’s debate

Advocates for strengthening hate crime laws say the current statutes are too narrow and rely too heavily on interpretations of a suspect’s motivations, which are often difficult to attribute to a single factor. Though adding two years to the possible sentence of an alleged mass murderer may not make much of a difference, supporters say an official acknowledgment of prejudice can help the targeted communities to heal. Current hate crime laws also prevent law enforcement from considering the context of a crime, such as the spike in anti-Asian incidents since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. This high bar of proof, plus lax hate crime reporting requirements among states, creates the impression that hate-inspired violence is a much smaller problem in the U.S. than it really is, others say.

Critics of expanding hate crime laws say stronger prison sentences for individual criminals will do little to eliminate prejudice. They argue that it’s foolish to expect the criminal justice system to lead the way to a more tolerant society. Others say the media and broader public are too reliant on law enforcement to decide what constitutes a hate crime when they could easily make that judgment on their own. Another group argues that strict gun control laws would be the best way to prevent mass killings, regardless of the shooter’s motivation.

What’s next

It’s possible that further investigation will lead Georgia law enforcement to levy hate crime charges against the alleged Atlanta shooter. The U.S. Department of Justice could also decide to pursue federal hate crime charges independent of the state investigation.

Perspectives

Existing hate crime laws are far too narrow

“The problem is that the way American laws are constructed, it is difficult to file hate crime charges (and make them stick) against those who harass, victimize and kill Asian Americans, even when the crime is as blatant as the Atlanta shootings at three Asian American businesses.” — Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The criminal justice system can’t solve prejudice

“The criminal-justice system will always be an underinclusive tool. It’s frustrating, but people look to the criminal-justice system to carry more weight than it can bear. In a free society, it will not solve every single social problem.” — Hate crime researcher Frederick M. Lawrence to New York

Before hate can be defeated, it must first be called what it is

“It should not take domestic terrorists writing white supremacist manifestos ... in order for us to classify their behavior as hate crimes. It is not enough for people to only be convicted of murder. They should also be convicted of hate crimes or we will continue to see everyday, mundane acts of racism spill over into larger acts of domestic terrorism.” — Rashawn Ray, Brookings

Community building, not harsher criminal penalties, is needed to combat hate

“We’re calling not necessarily for more punitive measures but restorative justice models that break the cycle of violence, ethnic studies to teach people about racial solidarity, community mediation efforts to not only hold people accountable, but to work together to resolve issues.” — Stop AAPI Hate co-founder Russell Jeung to Time

Authorities have too much room to apply their own biases in cases of racial violence

“It is just the latest example in America of the tendency by police and society, when confronted with hateful violence carried out by white men, to search for some other motive — any other motive — to explain it. It’s like a presumption against calling an obvious hate crime a hate crime until all other possibilities are ruled out.” — Kimberly Atkins, Boston Globe

The media doesn’t have to rely on the police to decide what counts as a hate crime

“Because even after all the soul-searching done during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, when first covering any crime, the media ... tend to follow the narrative offered by law enforcement. And in this case, law enforcement was following the narrative offered by an admitted killer.” — Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times

Stronger hate crime reporting requirements are needed

“We don’t even have a clear picture of the true amount of hate crime in the US. The FBI can tell you how many bank robberies occurred last year, but they can’t tell you a real assessment of bias crimes.” — Law enforcement expert Michael German to Guardian

The public knows what counts as a hate crime, regardless of what authorities say

“Just because a lawyer or a jury may not make a full accounting of these forces doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t do so ourselves.” — Irin Carmon, New York

Weak hate crime laws allow racism to fester

“Within hours of his arrest, the young, white alleged mass shooter is given a cover story that will allow many white Americans to neatly file his acts under a category that isn’t ‘racist’ or ‘misogynist’ or ‘xenophobic,’ or all three. If you don’t see this as a problem, you might be part of the problem.” — Rex Huppke, Chicago Tribune

The best way to prevent violence in all its forms is gun control

“As more information comes out about the shooting, there’s likely going to be a lot of very important discussion about the motivations behind hate crimes and domestic terrorism. ... These are all serious issues in our country that need full redress, which will be long and difficult and will likely take generations, if we’re lucky. In the meantime, however, we know one swift way to reduce the deadliness of terrorist attacks: Make it way harder for people to get guns.” — Amanda Marcotte, Salon

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images