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EDITORIAL: Keep bar high on hate-crime statute

The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Sept. 23–The recent beating death of 19-year-old Marcellus Andrews of Waterloo has some groups wondering if Iowa’s hate crimes statute is strong enough.

They point to the relatively few prosecutions under the law as evidence that it doesn’t have strong enough teeth.

They want the law to do more to deter and punish those who would commit offenses against others because of their race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation, sex, age, disability or sexual orientation.

But Iowa is right to have a high standard of evidence for hate crimes, to require prosecutors to show that bias was the motivation for the crime, rather than simply show the perpetrator was biased.

Setting the bar lower comes dangerously close to violating our constitutional rights to free speech.

Yes, it’s repugnant that some people persist in the belief that certain classes of people are better, more valuable, more “human” than others — but it’s not illegal. But putting 100 laws on the books wouldn’t necessarily challenge such small-mindedness.

What hate-crime legislation can do is target hate-fueled criminal acts deliberately planned to threaten or intimidate a certain group or class, and provide stiffer penalties as a deterrent. In that regard, we think Iowa’s hate crimes statute actually has worked pretty well.

When state legislators revised the law in 1992, after a troubling spate of cross burnings and other bias-motivated property crimes in Dubuque and elsewhere in the state, reporting of such crimes fell by more than 50 percent.

Hate crimes reported against African-Americans dropped from 48 in 1991 to 24 in 1993. Hate crimes based on sexual orientation fell from 30 to four during the same period. Data from 1998-2009 is similar: Total hate crimes averaged about 37 a year, most of them involving property damage.

The legislation’s message was clear: Racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia aren’t acceptable. If you’re committing crimes to scare a certain group or recruit people to your misguided cause, you’ll pay a heavy price.

We also disagree with those who say that because most hate crimes prosecuted in Iowa are for are lesser offenses, such as property crimes, it means the law is weak.

More serious offenses, like murder, already carry heavy penalties. It’s those “message sending” crimes like vandalism that require an extra penalty — without it, offenders would be subject to little more than a slap on the wrist.

Hate-crimes law recognizes that spray-painting a swastika on a synagogue is categorically different from tagging an alleyway door, that burning a church is not the same as setting fire to a garage.

And the law clearly intends to appropriately punish such actions.

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(c)2011 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)|

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