President Obama recently signed a hate crime bill, making it into law. Roughly put, the law makes assaulting a person because of sexual orientation or gender identification a federal offense. It has been claimed that this law will help protect people.
Naturally enough, this raises the question whether such a law will help protect people. Presumably what is meant by “protect” is that the law will deter people from committing such assaults. This, of course, assumes that people who commit such crimes will be aware of the law and that the fear of the law will cause them to not engage in attacks they would otherwise conduct if the law did not exist.
On the one hand, people can be deterred by the threat of punishment-especially when the law is a federal law. People presumably have more fear of federal laws than they do of lesser laws because of the greater power of the federal government. As such, there is reason to believe that the law can deter-especially when a high profile case or two makes the law and its consequences widely known to the sort of folks who would be inclined to attack such people.
On the other hand, assaulting someone is already illegal and punishable by the law. Presumably the people who have been assaulting folks who are now protected by this law were aware of this fact, yet they acted anyway. Also, the sort of folks who would be engaging in hate crimes would seem to be the sort of people who are not rational calculators. That is, it seems unlikely that they weigh out the probabilities and consequences before acting. Presumably if they are committing hate crimes, they are driven by hate and would tend to just act on the basis of this emotion.
Of course, the same can be said of any law. When I was an undergrad, one of my professors pointed out that prisons did not really work as deterrents. After all, if they worked, then they would be empty. Of course, it can be replied that the law (and prisons) do not deter everyone, but they do have some deterrent value. As such, this law might deter those folks inclined towards hate crime who are capable of making rational assessments about punishment. Of course, those folks would probably be deterred by the laws relating to assault.
The law does, of course, provide a way to punish people more severely. While this does not necessarily enhance deterrence, it does give the law more retributive force-and perhaps that is part of the appeal.
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