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Assessing the Public's Demand for Hate Crime Penalties

NCJ Number
Justice Quarterly Volume: 21 Issue: 1 Dated: March 2004 Pages: 91-124
Date Published
March 2004
34 pages

This study examined public attitudes toward harsher penalties for hate crimes.


During the past 15 years, hate crimes have emerged as their own criminal category. Hate crime laws prescribe enhanced punishment for an offender when a crime is committed against a person because of their minority group membership. The current research draws from a nationally representative sample of Americans to probe whether the public supports harsher penalties for hate crimes in general and whether support for harsher penalties can be attributed to respondent characteristics. The authors review previous research on public opinions about hate crime laws. The literature suggests that while the public generally supports hate crime legislation, global attitudes toward punishment do not carry over to attitudes about punishments for specific cases. The authors suggest that previous research actually measures whether the public thinks hate crimes are wrong, and not whether they support harsher penalties for hate crimes. Participants in the current study were 1,300 American adults who completed a telephone survey in 2000 about their opinions of appropriate punishment for various offenses. Participants answered questions concerning the appropriateness of the sentence in eight cases; two of which were relevant for the current study. Both cases involved a robbery and the same offender and offense characteristics. In one case, no reason was given for the offense but in the second case, the offender targeted the victim on the basis of ethnicity. Four types of independent variables were included: offender characteristics, offense characteristics, respondent characteristics, and information about punishment costs. Dependent variables were types of sentence and length of sentence. Results of statistical analyses indicate that the public has minimal support for harsher penalties for offenders whose crimes are motivated by hate. This finding lends support to previous research that suggests the public bases punishment decisions on the seriousness of the offense and not on the motivation for the offense. A second important finding revealed that the publics’ concern about hate crimes depends on which minority group is targeted. Respondents’ attitudes toward sentencing decisions were correlated with their attitudes toward punishment, treatment, and minority rights. More research is needed to understand the policy implications that call into question the magnitude of current Federal and State sentencing approaches. Tables, references

Date Published: March 1, 2004