Why Hate Crime Laws Shouldn’t Exist


In 2016, arguably one of the most divisive years in recent American history, the FBI reported 6,121 hate crimes nationwide. This number, the highest in the past five years, is startling and extremely concerning. The very notion of charging people with hate crimes, however, violates one of our most deeply held personal liberties: freedom of thought.

First, how do we define a hate crime? According to Susan Gellman and Frederick Lawrence’s 2005 piece “Agreeing to Agree: A Proponent and Opponent of Hate Crime Laws Reach for Common Ground,” a hate crime is a crime committed against someone because of their real or perceived membership in a particular group. Under this definition, perpetrators of crimes that are motivated by racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on are charged with the crime that was committed, but with a mandatory increased sentence for the motive.

This is where my main objection to hate crime laws comes in, as “hate” is the only motive that is explicitly punishable by law. In all other circumstances, motive is considered during sentencing at the discretion of the judge, not as grounds for a mandatory sentence enhancement. Let’s imagine the following hypothetical, which will assume a charge of simple assault in Vermont and employ Vermont’s hate crime laws. If Mark attacks Steve because Steve stole money from him, Mark is charged with simple assault and is sentenced to up to one year in prison. If Mark performs the same exact crime because Steve killed Mark’s mother, Mark is charged with simple assault and receives the same sentence. However, if Mark once again commits the same crime because Steve is Jewish, Mark is charged with a hate crime and is sentenced to up to two years in prison. Essentially, Mark is sentenced to an additional year in prison simply for the motive of his crime.

An important distinction to make is that between motive and intent. Motive refers to the reason why a perpetrator committed a crime, whereas intent refers to whether the perpetrator’s aim was to commit that crime. In all three of the above cases, Mark’s intent is to attack Steve, though his motive changes from case to case. In criminal law, intent is used to determine what crime someone ought to be charged with, whereas motive is almost always irrelevant in that goal, with the sole exception being hate crimes.

I by no means deny that committing a crime simply because someone is a member of a group is terrible and disgusting, because it is. I understand that the legal system is simply trying to send a message. This, however, cannot be done at the expense of a fair legal system. The goal of a trial is and always has been to determine whether or not a crime was committed, not why it was committed. Motive can be used as evidence for achieving that goal, but has never been punished under a separate statute.

Laws that rely on legal inconsistencies should not be laws, and the punishment of motive is only one of the inconsistencies put into place by hate crime legislation. Charging someone with a hate crime is essentially charging them with a thought crime, reminiscent of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” Before someone commits a hate crime, the terrible thoughts that are going through that person’s head are not punishable by law. Why, then, does the perpetrator become criminally liable for his or her thoughts after committing said crime? Someone’s thoughts alone should never be punished, regardless of what crimes that person has committed.

Frederick Lawrence and other proponents of hate crime legislation have argued that the laws should remain intact given the increased emotional damages that being the victim of a hate crime bring. Though true, this is in direct contradiction to the fact that the United States has virtually no hate speech laws, as often justified by the First Amendment. This same justification should also extend to hate crime laws.

The horrible beliefs held by those who commit hate crimes should be allowed, though not accepted. By enforcing legal punishment against people for the beliefs they hold, as hate crime laws do, we sacrifice the view of America as a place where people are allowed to freely disagree with one another. This disagreement is vital in bringing the necessary attention to injustices in our society.

The legal inconsistencies surrounding hate crime legislation are numerous and frightening. Not only does hate crime legislation create legal precedence for directly punishing certain beliefs, it also punishes people based on others’ emotional damages, which is almost exclusively handled in civil court rather than criminal court. These contradictions sacrifice the fair legal system that ought to be a goal of American democracy.