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November 1, 2013

Is harsher punishment the answer to hate crime?

Mencap and other charities have been waging a campaign for many years to get crime against those with disabilities classed as a hate crime.  They complain that perpetrators get too lenient sentences. “Sentencing at the moment does not always reflect the seriousness of hate crime”. The charities have persuaded the Law Commission to make recommendations on reforming the law.  But this whole approach troubles me.  It may be that compared to other hate crime (eg against those from particular races), crime against those with disabilities is sentenced more leniently.  But ratcheting up all sentences is not the answer.  And calling for harsher sentences assumes they are a deterrent.  But they are not, as this article by Mark Walters points out.  Its an excellent piece but I don’t however agree with Mark’s conclusion that the law should be changed to provide a social declaration of hate, ie to give the message that disability hate crime is to be abhorred.  The law is an incredibly blunt instrument with which to change attitudes and the problem with ratcheting up sentences is that punishment doesn’t work.  The answer is for all sentencing to be made less punitive, bringing sentences for existing hate crimes down not up.  Hate crime is terrible, but other approaches are needed to combat it.  The irony of the situation is that many offenders have disabilities too, including learning disabilities.  If disability charities call for harsher punishment of perpetrators of hate crime, they feed a feeding frenzy for punishment which may in turn ratchet up the sentences of those disabled people who commit crime.