Generally I'm very critical of the prison-industrial complex. The number of issues surrounding our penal system defies a single blog post. But the cynical profiteering involved, and the influence this has on our drug legislation, sentencing policies, method of inmate discipline, ways of exploiting the families of inmates, etc. seem like the biggest issues to me. And the fact that we incarcerate a larger proportion of our population than any other country (think about that for a minute) is a huge, huge issue that merits a lot of attention and concern. And don't even get me started on the racism and classism involved, or the long-term disenfranchisement of those who have been incarcerated.
On the other hand, I tend to support hate crime legislation. Because it's clear to me that some members of our society are more vulnerable to victimization precisely because of who they are and how our culture values them. And these marginalized groups often have less access to legal help and a supportive social network, and are less likely to be protected by our deeply flawed system of justice. So supporting hate crime legislation seems like a no-brainer to me.
However, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project's stance on the GENDA bill in New York has gotten me thinking about this. On the face of it, it does seem deeply inconsistent to oppose our increasing incarceration rate while also supporting legislation that would impose harsher sentences for certain crimes. And this is compounded by the fact that, generally speaking, any bill that involves tougher sentencing is supported financially by prison industry lobby groups. If you follow the money, almost every piece of legislation requiring stricter sentencing, and almost every politician who takes a strong anti-crime stance is backed by prison industry dollars. And that is something to take very seriously. But does it trump the good reasons for supporting hate crime legislation? I don't think so.
For one thing, violent crimes account for only 4.6% of arrests in the U.S.,* and of those, only 20% of the victims are hurt badly enough to need medical treatment. So clearly the problem of high incarceration rates is not connected to violent crimes, but has much more to do with the misguided and ineffective war on drugs. Since hate crimes would fall into the category of violent crimes, they don't seem to be a major contributor to the whole cycle of increased incarceration rates that is required to fuel the prison-industrial complex.
On the other hand, the fact that crimes are disproportionately policed, prosecuted, and differentially sentenced based on race and class is an issue in this case. But I'm not convinced that abstaining from enacting hate crime laws will have any impact on this. Instead, it seems like there's a lot of work that needs to be done at the systemic level in law enforcement and the justice system to bring about real change in this area. Add to that the fact that in many parts of the country we already have hate crime laws in effect that cover race and sexual orientation but not gender identity, and it's clear that it would be unhelpful and exclusionary to oppose hate crime legislation that protects people who are targeted on the basis of their gender presentation. The problems surrounding the prison-industrial complex are serious issues that deserve a lot of attention and advocacy to bring about profound change. But opposing hate crime legislation is not the way to do this.
*Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2002. Table 4.8.