Criminal Justice System Reforms

Criminal Justice System Reforms

Bias crime victims and their supporters have been able to improve the response of the criminal justice system in many ways: securing the passage of new laws penalizing hate-motivated acts more severely; spurring police departments to take special steps to investigate and solve these kinds of crimes; and encouraging district attorneys to prosecute hate crimes vigorously.

Starting in the 1980s, a number of state legis- latures enacted statutes that applied stiffer penalties to hate crimes to discourage attacks against people considered by bigots to be of the “wrong” race, ethnic group, religion, or sexual orientation. (In the 1980s, many state legislators and congressional representatives opposed the inclusion of sexual preference as a protected category, fearing that spe- cifically prohibiting assaults against homosexuals could be viewed as an endorsement of that life- style.) In 1984, California became the first state to amend an existing hate crime statute to include attacks against gays and lesbians—as well as people singled out for their age or disability (Gutis, 1989).

Most recent state laws have civil lawsuit provisions that make it easier for plaintiffs to sue bigots who interfere with the exercise of their constitutional rights. Victims can recover out- of-pocket expenses, can collect punitive damages

and reimbursement for attorney’s fees, and can secure injunctive relief: court orders of protection.

Because many offenders are teenagers who are processed by the juvenile justice system, most states have passed laws that enable injured parties to hold the wrongdoer’s parents liable for up to several thousand dollars in damages (Pfeiffer, 2007).

The police department in New York City established the country’s first specialized unit to investigate possible bias crimes in 1980. Police forces in Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, and Nassau and Suffolk counties in New York also set up hate crime squads during the 1980s. By 1990, 34 percent of police departments in large cities had established full-time units. However, by 2000, that percentage dropped to 26 percent, although 71 percent of local law enforcement agencies had some officers assigned to investigate bias crimes on a part-time basis (Reaves and Hick- man, 2002). When neighborhood tensions soar, these squads can maintain surveillance and moni- tor people and places judged to be likely targets. They can send police officers as decoys to pose as vulnerable victims to entice would-be offenders to attack—and then be arrested immediately by backup teams lying in wait (Scott and Williams, 1985; and Wexler and Marx, 1986).

When bias crime victims come forward and request help, the police can serve them in many ways. They can respond promptly, be sensitive when questioning them (and not dismiss the inci- dent as a prank, betray skepticism about whether the event occurred, or imply it was somehow pro- voked), and make arrests quickly. Detectives can keep victims informed about progress in their cases; can “read them their rights” about opportu- nities for restitution, compensation, and civil law- suits; and can try to discourage the news media from revealing names and addresses of complai- nants. If victims are in continuing danger, the department can provide extra security from reprisals or temporarily relocate them to safer surroundings. Officers also can refer bias crime victims to com- munity organizations offering hot lines, crisis inter- vention services, and support groups (Scott and Williams, 1985).

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Supporters of a get-tough stance against hate- motivated crimes concede that harmony and mutual respect among people of different races, ethnic groups, religions, and sexual preferences cannot be brought about through legislation. But they believe that the threat of thorough investiga- tions, vigorous prosecutions, and extra severe sanctions might deter conscious attempts to pro- voke intergroup strife. Critics of these measures question whether an aggressor’s alleged motive— to express his animosity toward an entire group— can ever be established beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Those critics suggest that the harm inflicted rather than the attacker’s personal reasons should be the basis for determining the degree of punishment (Klurfeld, 1988; see also Jacobs and Potter, 1998).

The rediscovery of hate crime victims and the emerging consensus that these offenses must be taken very seriously can be seen as a positive development because highly publicized incidents have the potential to sabotage the ongoing social experiment of fostering an acceptance of a post- racial multiculturalism in the United States—at a time when full participation in a global economy requires tolerance by individuals and entire socie- ties toward diversity in religious beliefs and ethnic identities.

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