An Overlooked Problem with The New Hate Crimes Bill

An Overlooked Problem with The New Hate Crimes Bill

Posted Jun 03, 2009

If someone says that a woman or a child is raped because the victim is a woman or a child, does it sound absurd? It sounds ridiculous because the person explains the crime incidence as caused by the distinctiveness of the victim, but does not blame the offender for the offense. By analogy, a similar problem is associated with the legal definition of hate crime.

Most opponents of the new hate crimes bill (S. 909, Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act) argued that the pending legislation would expand the federal government protections to selected citizens and groups. Although I applaud the intention of the new bill--to provide Federal assistance to States, local jurisdictions, and Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes and to offer guidelines for handling related issues, I oppose the ambiguous wording of the hate crime definition, because the wording intends to define both what is hate crime and what causes hate crime. It does not do well on either task.

According to the new bill, the term "hate crime" has the same meaning given in Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Namely it refers to crime in which "the defendant intentionally selects a victim, ...because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation of any person." I think that the phrasing has the following problems:

First, it hinders the effort to identify and accurately classifying bias crimes, including the ambiguity of applying the legal definition to cases (see Cronin, et al., 2007).)

Second, as I described in the early post "Does the victim cause hate crime?" and in a journal article (Sun, 2006), the legal definition of hate crime is a criminal law definition. According to criminal law, the defendant is guilty of a crime only when the offender's criminal commission or omission occurred with a simultaneous mens rea or criminal intent. The "because" statement in the previous hate crime legislation is supposed to define the offender' mental state that includes the required criminal intent (mens rea) and the offender's cognitive distortions (using perceived group differences between the self and the victim to rationalize crime). However, instead of using the sound legal language to describe the required mental state of the offender, the wording in the definition has adopted the popular victim-focused explanation or phrase about "why" the offender commits hate crime. Namely, someone commits prejudice or bias offenses because of the victim's different group membership.

Criminal law only has the caliber to define what is legal or illegal, but it does not have the power (and is not supposed) to offer scientific explanations for crime, including hate crime. This confusion in the definition has created the misperception about the psychological causes of hate crime for the public and the mass media. For example, it is common to read a news article that explains a prejudice-motivated offense as generated by the victim's race, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin, among others. In other words, people tend to use the victims' group memberships or distinctiveness (e.g., race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs) to explain prejudice and related crime, assuming that individuals become the victims of prejudice or hate crime because of their group memberships. Inadvertently, this misattribution puts the blame on the victim, rather than on the offender.

For people looking for psychological explanations for hate crime, research has demonstrated several more plausible causal explanations about the offenders, including:

a) Authoritarian personality (e.g. submissive to authority figures, displace their hostility and self hatred onto lower status targets or outgroup members).

b) Prejudice and cognitive distortions, including erroneous generalization and oversimplification about the targets, the formation of social attitudes before or despite objective evidence and other inaccuracies in categorizing, evaluating, and explaining social entities.

c) Offenders' individual characteristics, including offenders' childhood traumas and harsh treatments (with punitive and abusive parents, etc), and a sense of self vulnerability.

d). Dehumanization of the victim.

e) A tendency to classify people into rigid categories and the belief in the fixed boundary of the categories.

Finally, what is a better definition for hate crime? I think that it can be defined as an intentional, illegal and violent act based on the perpetrator's bias or prejudice against the status of the victim.


Cronin, S. W. et al. (2007). Bias-crime reporting: Organizational responses to ambiguity,

     uncertainty, and infrequency in eight police departments. American Behavioral Scientist,

     51(2), 213-231.

Sun, K. (2006). The legal definition of hate crime and

     the hate offender’s distorted cognition.

     Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 27, 597-604

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