Protecting the Homeless under Vulnerable Victim Sentencing Guidelines: An Alternative to Inclusion in Hate Crime Laws

Article excerpt

TABLE OF CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION
I. ENHANCED PUNISHMENTS
   A. Hate Crime Laws
   B. Vulnerable Victim Sentencing Guidelines
   C. Criticisms of Enhanced Punishments
II. DEHUMANIZATION OF THE HOMELESS
III. PROTECTING THE HOMELESS UNDER VULNERABLE
   VICTIM SENTENCING GUIDELINES
   A. Vulnerable Victim Sentencing Guidelines as a
      Flexible Alternative to Hate Crime Statutes
   B. Applying Vulnerable Victim Sentencing
      Guidelines to the Homeless
      1. The Fundamental Purpose of Vulnerable
         Victim Sentencing Guidelines
      2. Specific Court Cases Involving the Federal
         Vulnerable Victim Sentencing Guideline
         a. Homelessness as a Factor
         b. Homelessness as a Proxy for Vulnerability
CONCLUSION

INTRODUCTION

Michael Roberts was a homeless (1) man living in Daytona Beach, Florida, when he was brutally attacked and killed by four teenage boys in May 2005. (2) One of the boys was only fourteen years of age, (3) and another admitted to being high at the time of the attack. (4) The boys beat Roberts in three separate attacks, using sticks to hit him and fracture his skull. (5) They also jumped on a log placed on his chest, breaking his ribs. (6)

This kind of violence exhibited toward the homeless is not uncommon, and such attacks are alarmingly random and brutal. (7) Both law enforcement officials and researchers agree that the number of attacks on the homeless has increased over the past several years. (8) In absolute terms, there have been 880 documented attacks on the homeless over the past decade--244 of which were fatal. (9) These attacks have occurred in fifty-five different cities across the United States. (10) And consistent with the beating death of Michael Roberts, the perpetrators were mostly men and teenage boys who committed these horrendous acts of violence simply for the thrill of it. (11)

These trends are troubling, especially because the threat of violence against the homeless may increase as the number of people living on the streets grows. Although it is uncertain whether the homeless population will expand in the near future, two factors make this prediction a distinct possibility. First, the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are increasing the number of veterans living on the streets; in 2007 alone, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that over 400 homeless persons were veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (12) Indeed, war veterans are more susceptible to becoming homeless because they frequently suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. (13) To cope with these conditions, many veterans turn to alcohol and drugs, which makes it harder for them to maintain an existence in mainstream society. (14) Moreover, those veterans who have been on multiple tours in Afghanistan or Iraq often experience difficulty adjusting back into family and work life. (15) As long as the wars continue, and more soldiers return to U.S. soil, this problem of neglected, homeless veterans has the potential to escalate. (16)

The second factor that will likely contribute to an expanding homeless population is the recent economic downturn and the housing crisis. Foreclosures are forcing individuals and families to leave their homes and seek shelter elsewhere. In 2009, an average of 10 percent of the people living in homeless shelters had lost their homes to foreclosure. (17) In the Midwest, high foreclosure and unemployment rates were factors for 15 percent of the newly homeless. (18) California, Michigan, and Florida also have a large number of newly homeless individuals and families due to high foreclosure rates. (19) As long as the housing and job markets stay depressed, home foreclosure is sure to be a factor in the potential growth of the country's homeless population.

In response to the rise in violence against the homeless and the potential growth in the homeless population, many advocacy groups have urged legislatures to pass legal reforms that deter such violence by punishing more severely those who attack the homeless. …