Public Perceptions of Fair Punishment for Hate Crimes

Sara Steen, University of Colorado, Boulder
Mark A. Cohen, Vanderbilt University

Hate crime has emerged over the past fifteen years as a distinct category within criminal law. Hate crime laws "recriminalize or enhance the punishment of an ordinary crime when the criminal's motive manifests a legislatively designated prejudice like racism or anti-Semitism" (Jacobs and Potter 1998: 6). The introduction of harsher penalties for crimes motivated by hate has been primarily a result of strong lobbying by interest groups rather than a result of public demand that crimes motivated by hate should be treated differently than the same crimes without such motivation (Jenness 1999; Jacobs and Potter 1998). While national polls conducted in recent years have uncovered general support for hate crime laws, there is no evidence demonstrating that this support translates into support for the actual sentence enhancements, mandatory minimums, and other tools mandated under such laws. In the absence of such evidence, there is no way to know whether public support for hate crime legislation is real or symbolic. Criminologists have studied public perceptions of fair sentencing by asking people to make sentencing decisions, then assessing the impact of respondent, offender, and offense characteristics on severity of punishment. Drawing from established methodologies in this area, we use a nationally representative sample of American adults to answer the questions of whether the public supports harsher penalties for hate crimes generally, whether support for such penalties varies by respondent characteristics, and whether there is more support for punishing hate crimes against certain minority groups than others. In doing so, we hope to ascertain whether attitudes reflected in polling data translate into actual sentencing decisions. In our analyses, we compare individual responses regarding appropriate sentences for two offenders committing identical crimes in which the only difference is that one was described as being motivated by one of three kinds of prejudice (race, religion, or sexual orientation), while no specific motivation is provided for the other. Three findings stand out, and suggest that public support for enhanced penalties for hate crimes is limited. First, while respondents generally ask for slightly more severe penalties for the offenses motivated by hatred, the additional amount is not statistically significant, and is certainly not as much as most hate crime laws mandate (See Table 1). Second, this finding does not hold true across all respondent groups (See Tables 2 and 3). Specifically, significant differences between sentences for non-hate and hate crimes arise within several groups of respondents who are generally found to be more lenient in sentencing, such as women, respondents at both the youngest and oldest ends of the age spectrum, and respondents with liberal attitudes. Members of these groups ask for sentences for non-hate crimes that are significantly shorter than the sample mean, while requesting sentences for hate crimes that are equal to or larger than the sample mean. Thus, the lenience these groups generally afford to offenders does not carry over to those committing crimes motivated by hatred. Finally, respondents feel that some kinds of prejudice are more deserving of punishment than others (Table 4). Specifically, hate crimes against Jews and blacks incur significantly more severe penalties than hate crimes against homosexuals; indeed, when hate crimes against homosexual victims are removed from the hate crime category, significant differences arise between non-hate and hate crimes.

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Updated 05/20/2006