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The homeless and hate

October 30, 2008

The murder of John Robert McGraham, the Los Angeles homeless man who was set on fire this month, was a hateful crime. But was it also a hate crime, deserving of the additional punishment meted out to those who choose their victims on the basis of race or religion? Our answer is no.

According to the National Commission for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, California saw 22 attacks on homeless people last year, the second-highest number in the nation. By comparison, there were 932 racially motivated hate crimes reported in the state in 2007.

It's outrageous that the homeless, a vulnerable and often mentally ill population, are tormented, beaten and even killed. If McGraham's murderer is located and convicted, he should be sentenced to life in prison without parole. But advocates for the homeless want more. They are supporting two bills in Congress: One :h2216ih.txt.pdf would require the Justice Department to compile statistics about attacks against the homeless, as it does with those rooted in "manifest prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity"; the other:h2217ih.txt.pdf would direct the U.S. Sentencing Commission to allow for extra prison time for crimes against the homeless.

If Congress determines that crimes against the homeless are a national problem that the FBI should track, it's hard to object. More troubling is the idea of a so-called piggyback hate-crime law in which someone who assaults a homeless person can be punished more severely than if, with equal violence, he attacks someone on the street who is traveling to his home.

Activists who support a "homeless" category of hate crime believe that it would have symbolic value in affirming the dignity of the homeless and stigmatizing those who mistreat them. That, rather than any dissatisfaction with the way police now deal with such attacks, seems to be their overriding justification. The problem is that other groups may decide that attacks on their members are likewise not taken seriously if the hate-crime label isn't affixed to them.

This already has happened at the federal level, with a controversy about whether legislation expanding a hate-crime law to cover violence against gays and lesbians should also target "bias crimes" based on disability. An attack on someone in a wheelchair is as despicable as an attack on a homeless person, but it isn't rooted in the sort of pervasive discrimination experienced by racial, religious and other minorities.

Ignoring this fact could lead to a situation in which every crime is a hate crime -- and none is.

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