Domestic Violence and Hate Crimes: Acknowledging Two Levels of Responsibility

By Isaacs, Tracy | Criminal Justice Ethics, Summer-Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Domestic Violence and Hate Crimes: Acknowledging Two Levels of Responsibility


Isaacs, Tracy, Criminal Justice Ethics


Sometimes people harbor certain negative attitudes about a group and go on to commit crimes involving persons whom they perceive to be group members. For example, individuals have been beaten to death because of their sexual orientation, lynched because of the color of their skin, or shot because of their religious affiliation. When someone is targeted because she or he is a member of a group for which the perpetrator feels hatred, we often identify this as a "hate crime." Much domestic violence also has its source in negative attitudes, in this case attitudes about the subordinate place of women relative to men in society and the appropriateness of using violence to keep them there. (1)

Some people believe that when a crime against an individual is motivated by a negative attitude about a particular group, for example, gay men, the crime is aggravated. In other words, if a vicious beating is also a gay-bashing, the crime is more serious than an equally vicious beating that is directed against a particular individual for reasons not having to do with prejudice. Proponents of this view might support enacting legislation that deals specifically with hate crimes.

I accept that crimes motivated by harmful negative attitudes about some group have an extra component that is lacking in similar crimes not so motivated. This component stems from attitudes arising from misconceptions that are potentially harmful to members of that group. I do not, however, endorse the view that hate crimes and their relatives, such as crimes of domestic violence, are for that reason worse than similar crimes otherwise motivated. Nevertheless, I shall argue that this extra component means that, in addition to the usual punishments for these crimes, we have reason to insist on counseling as a part of a just response to those who are convicted of them. The aim of such counseling would be the revision of these negative attitudes.

Counseling is particularly appropriate when the attitudes that contribute to the criminal acts are mainstream. For example, homophobia is not restricted to gaybashers. Nor are racist attitudes restricted to perpetrators of racist crimes. Nor is the view that women are subordinate to men restricted to those who beat their female partners. Certainly, anti-semitism was by no means restricted to Nazi sympathizers.

My argument for the appropriateness of counseling as part of a just response to convictions in the case of crimes motivated by negative attitudes of these kinds rests on a claim about moral responsibility. Specifically, I argue that incorporating counseling acknowledges two levels of moral responsibility: moral responsibility at the level of the individual perpetrator and moral responsibility at the level of the community. We have good moral reason to take a more integrated approach that includes counseling and involves not only law enforcement and penal institutions but also community-based social services. This does not rule out the possibility of incarceration. Nevertheless this approach urges that we move beyond the idea that a jail or prison term is by itself sufficient to address a conviction for criminal behavior supported by negative attitudes of the kind involved in hate crimes and domestic violence.

I expect some opposition to the suggestion that a criminal conviction might warrant anything beyond those punitive consequences with which it is traditionally associated. In particular, opponents may worry that the criminal nature of these acts is compromised when we include social services in the response. Not only are they being treated differently from other assaults, but the "treatment" associations of counseling might suggest diminished agency, thus undermining the claim that perpetrators are responsible. This would cast into doubt the appropriateness of regarding these wrongdoers as criminals at all. Taking these worries seriously, I address them both. I show that the integrated approach makes sense once we understand the kinds of changes that need to be in place if we are to address the social aspect of these crimes. …

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Domestic Violence and Hate Crimes: Acknowledging Two Levels of Responsibility
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