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Crimes Defined by Actions


May 11, 1999


Crimes Are Defined By Actions,

Not A Hierarchy of Thoughts

By Daniel B. Newby

During the last session of the Utah State Legislature, there was great debate surrounding the unsuccessful "Hate Crimes Amendments" bill (Senate Bill 34). The recent murder of Matthew Shepard, a homosexual college student, prompted the Wyoming legislature to consider "hate crime" measures. Now Congress is considering "hate crime" legislation that would impose greater penalties on criminals who target victims based on race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation.

The American judicial system has a long history of attempting to identify certain factors that may have contributed to criminal acts. Juries and judges attempt to determine whether a crime was pre-meditated or accidental, or whether there was any malicious intent to do harm to the victim. These are reasonable questions that can, and often should, be taken into consideration in judgment and sentencing.

Recent "hate crime" proposals, however, attempt to take the difficult job of determining intent to a new level. Federal and state proposals all appear to have one thing in common: setting up special classes of victims, who are afforded a higher level of government protection than others victimized by similar crimes. "Hate crime" proposals assign punishment on the basis of thoughts and beliefs and attempt to discover and then punish what people think, rather than focusing on criminal acts of violence and vandalism.

Violent crimes against individuals and their property are typically infused with hatred, or at the very least an incredible disregard for the worth and rights of another human being. The question is whether to attempt to categorize and play favorites with varieties of hatred. Can a judicial system remain just while setting up a special hierarchy of victims and increasing punishments for those harboring the "wrong" kind of thoughts?

Men and governments are not endowed with sufficient wisdom and knowledge to set up elaborate legislative indicators and penalties for hateful thoughts, beliefs, or philosophies. This is not only unreasonable to expect of a judge and jury, it is completely beyond the capacity or right of human beings. In addition, history has repeatedly proven the injustice that results from attempts to enhance or diminish punishment on the basis of what an individual thinks.

Consider the "trench coat" murderers at Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado, who targeted athletes, minorities, and Christians. Athletes are not covered by "hate crimes" proposals and many children were murdered who did not fall into any of those convenient categories. Shall we attempt to place crimes against athletes higher or lower than crimes against homosexuals or Jews? "Hate crime" proposals imply that these children were less deserving of protection and that their perpetrators were less deserving of the maximum punishment possible under the law.

Another example is organized crime, which is often conducted in a methodical, dollar-based manner, not motivated by other factors considered in "hate crime" proposals. These crimes should not be considered less seriously simply because they are not motivated by a victim's color or ethnicity.

Finally, should a rapist receive a lighter punishment because he was offended that his victim was not attracted to him, than if he took offense to his victim's religious affiliation or sexual orientation? Absolutely not. A victim of rape is a victim of rape an act that should be equally horrendous, malicious, and despicable regardless, and separate, of the guiding thoughts or beliefs of the perpetrator. A caring society will demand that its government render equal justice against the perpetrator.

All violent acts of malice and all victims should be equal in the eyes of a justice system without bias, prejudice, or some nebulous hierarchy of hateful thoughts. As Martin Luther King, Jr. emphatically declared in his quest for a just and unbiased America:

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.'"

Men and governments have the ability to identify and attempt to punish violent crimes against citizens and their property. This is an enormous and challenging task for all levels of government, as can be evidenced by struggling and overcrowded judicial and penal systems. Care should be taken not to further complicate this task by introducing a belief bias structure that attacks an individual's right to love, hate, or be indifferent.

Churches and other organizations that promote moral values are best suited and best equipped to deal with the hearts and minds of citizens. These true pillars of society should work to improve the guiding philosophies, beliefs and thoughts of citizens. Let these organizations attempt to intervene by promoting and reinforcing the morals and values that will prevent future tragedies in our homes, schools, and neighborhoods. Meanwhile, let government focus on remaining within its proper role of providing equal justice based on the violent criminal acts of individuals.

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Daniel B. Newby wrote this article while employed as Director of Operations & Development for the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based public policy research institute.

Permission to reprint this article in whole or in part is granted provided credit is given to the author and to the Sutherland Institute.

Disclaimer: Newby left the Sutherland Institute on January 28, 2003, and has conducted all his efforts since that time as a private citizen.  The Sutherland Institute has officially and publicly disavowed and distanced itself from Newby's political views, tone, and activities.  As a courtesy to the Sutherland Institute, we have posted their e-mail on the matter.


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