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HATE CRIME LAWS PROTECT ALL EQUALLY

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During the past year, the United States has witnessed a series of high-profile,  bias-motivated crimes in Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, Alabama and, most recently, in Granada Hills. The complex and disturbing issues surrounding hate crimes were the topic of a conference recently held at UCLA.

  More than 150 policy-makers, law- enforcement and mental-health professionals and educators met to discuss the challenge of hate in our schools and communities. For those like myself who work with victims  and perpetrators of hate crimes and shape policies concerning how bias crimes are being reported and prosecuted, the program was sobering and challenging. Hate crime laws are recent phenomena; yet hate violence between distinct  cultural groups is a defining characteristic of our history.

Proponents of hate crime laws argue the goal of the laws is to protect not only vulnerable persons but also vulnerable communities.  Critics of these laws frequently argue that all crimes are hateful, that the laws do not deter hate violence and cater to special-interest group needs. While we know little about the solution to hate violence, there remain some  important reasons why we should support these laws. Consider these pros and cons:

"The laws don't work." It is wrong on its face to craft and attempt to enforce only laws that deter persons from violating the laws to begin with. Hate crime laws are a logical extension of the concept of equal protection and equal rights embedded in the culture — not just the law — of our society.

"It stifles free speech." Hate crime laws only stifle violence. Laws against bias criminality can only be employed when there is violence to the person, restriction of civil rights or damage to property due substantially to the bias against a class of potential victims. Hate speech without the presence of aggression and violence is not criminal, no matter how hateful the language is. In my review of convicted hate criminals in Los Angeles, 60% of the offenders had one or more prior convictions for violent crime. Most of these cases included the clear presence of hate speech, which occurred concurrently with an act of violence.

"All crimes are about hate." Actually, hate crimes are different because they have so little to do with the typical motives of criminals: money and getting even with a known foe. Hate crimes are most frequently perpetrated by strangers upon strangers and rarely have to do with material gain. For all of the reported hate crimes in Los Angeles County from 1994 through 1997, less than 20% were related to activity such as burglary or robbery; rarely did the perpetrator know his or her victim.

"The laws are only for special interest groups." We are all special interest groups under hate crime legislation because we are all protected from being targeted as a crime victim due to race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. Hate crime laws are not a tool of divisiveness, as critics say, but rather reinforce the core values of equity and equal protection. The laws protect not some of us, but all of us.

Edward Dunbar is an associate clinical professor at UCLA and a psychologist with Pacific Psychological Associates.

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