Thursday, 27 June 2013

What's Worse: Hate Crime or Road Rage?




Recently I enquired on Facebook:

Suppose you are called to answer the following two questions instinctively, based only on the details I've provided.  

Question 1: Which should the state treat more severely in a court of law?

A) Stabbing a man to death because you don't like that he was driving too slowly in front of you
B) Stabbing a man to death because you don't like that he is a Muslim
C) Both the same

Question 2: Which should the state treat more severely in a court of law?

A) A white man stabs a black man to death in a country in which the ratio of people amounts to 85% white and 15% black
B) A black man stabs a white man to death in a country in which the ratio of people amounts to 85% white and 15% black
C) Both the same

Unsurprisingly, almost everyone who answered chose C for both questions.  I then asked a further question to all those who responded by private message:

Question 3: Which should the state treat more severely in a court of law?

A} Stabbing a man to death because you found out he just raped and killed your friend's 2 young children
B} Stabbing a man to death because you don't like that he is a Muslim
C} Both the same

With question 3 the results were mixed; many stuck with C, and many more chose B this time, with nobody choosing A. 

So let's ask it this way; is targeting a specific individual more harmful to society than targeting a randomly chosen person from a large group (like Muslims)?  That’s a question often asked, but one that I think is rarely answered correctly.  The answer isn’t yes or no, it’s yes and no, as I hope you’ll see from my above questions.  Irrespective of how we would want the courts to judge these crimes, I fancy that most people would say no in the case of question 3.  After all, getting revenge may not be a good course of action generally speaking - but killing the man who raped and killed your friend's 2 young children seems to have slightly more mitigation attached to it than killing an innocent man who has done you no harm, but just happens to belong to a faith group you don't like. It seems obvious to me that we should see more mitigation in A.  If it isn’t obvious to you, consider an even more extreme case, where a father killed his own child's killer - that's even more mitigation still. That doesn't mean the courts should act on those mitigating circumstances (although they usually do) - but it does suggest most of us have a sympathetic disposition towards these responses, even if we're not glad when they occur. 

But the above model - that targeting a specific individual is not more harmful to society than targeting a randomly chosen person from a large group - doesn't always hold, because if you did a survey among any large number of people you'd find that people are willing to pay more than 1 thousand times as much to avoid guaranteed death than they will to avoid a 1 in a thousand chance of death. By that measure, targeting a specific individual like the man driving too slowly in front of you is more harmful to society than targeting a randomly chosen Muslim man. Moreover, if the randomly chosen person from a large group happened to be in the context of a road rage, and the targeting of a specific individual happened to be an attack of prejudice against a black person, we would answer yes.

Governments generally set their spending targets to grab the attention of the masses, not the minorities – so they largely target that group rather than specified individuals.  But conversely, it is sometimes thought in Governmental policy to be better to target an individual rather than randomly chosen people.  For example, the spending limit for a Government to put up a safety fence by a river where drunk people regularly congregate (saving unforeseen lives) is lower than the spending limit for a Government to rescue a specific man trapped in a mine.  Hence, it cuts both ways; the answer is yes and no, not just yes or no. 

When I asked the 3 questions on Facebook, just about everyone thought that questions 1 and 2 should be answered C, and more people thought that question 3 should be answered B rather than C.  That would suggest a broad brush example of popular opinion, but it is a fact that the State doesn't usually accede to public opinion on this one.  The State punishes what they call 'hate crimes' more severely.  Their position is that the death of an outrageously slow driver is marginally not as bad as the death of a randomly chosen Muslim. If you expand on this in the obvious way, it’s a position that justifies treating hate crimes more severely - which is interesting because 'level of hate' isn't really the issue at all.  The hate you'd have for the killer of your friend's children (or your own) probably exceeds the hate a Muslim hater has for all Muslims, as in the former case you've been one of the personal victims, whereas in the latter case you haven't.  

Unofficially.....and this is unofficial…..the State's metric for judging crimes of the above nature is based primarily on two things; on – and they won’t use these terms - a potential victim pool, and on recidivism probability (the probability of re-offence). That means if you are convicted of a crime against a Muslim 'because' the victim is a Muslim you have a much greater probability of a longer sentence than if your crime is against a bad driver 'because' he is a bad driver (note most people I surveyed felt that each crime should receive the same sentence). Using this kind of logic, then in question 2 it should be the case that B is worse than C, because when a black man stabs a white man to death in a country in which the ratio of people amounts to 85% white and 15% black, the potential victim pool is greater than when a white man stabs a black man to death in a country in which the ratio of people amounts to 85% white and 15% black (as is the recidivism level if there are potentially more people to kill).  But I don’t think we’d be happy with that kind of thinking.  Think of it like this. When you target a specific victim because he has annoyed you on the road, or played his music too loud, or made a pass at your girlfriend, you do a lot of damage to that one person, but not too much to everyone else.  When you target a specific victim because of his skin colour, you do a lot of damage to that one person, but potentially (and in many cases, actually) a whole lot of societal damage to everyone else with the same skin colour.  It seems to me that it is immediately obvious in which case you’ve done more total damage -  the micro evidence points to the second case, not the first.  I think the potential victim pool idea is nonsense; crimes against whites or blacks due to prejudice are equally as bad in either case, and the sentencing should reflect that. 

Further, if the potential victim pool and recidivism are factors, then clearly this doesn't always go against people who target specific individuals - because if you're the sort of person who is only likely to kill in the event of a personally felt injustice (such as yours or your fiend's child being raped and killed) then your potential victim pool must be extremely unrepresentative of the population, and consequently your probability of recidivism extremely low too.

Why is there so much crime?
Lastly, now we’re on the subject of crime, have you ever stopped to ask yourself why we’re so soft (relatively speaking) on so much crime, when it is in our power to drastically reduce it?  There are so many crimes (some very serious, and some less serious), that we know it is well within the State’s power to virtually eradicate, yet they don’t.  For example, rape, sex trafficking and grievous bodily harm (to name but three) are horrible crimes that just about everyone wishes didn’t happen.  Suppose a new law was introduced tomorrow; if you are convicted of any of those crimes you have to spend the rest of your life in prison, with no chance of seeing daylight again.  I’m pretty sure that as a result crime levels for rape, sex trafficking and grievous bodily harm would drop significantly.  The lesser crimes, like graffiti and using your mobile phone whilst driving, are social nuisances that would be all but eradicated if lengthy prison sentences were imposed.  If the average youth knew that spraying a road sign or a statue with graffiti would get him ten years in prison, he would have a deterrent sufficient enough to see him throw away the spray can.  Does the State consider the spillover costs of such tough punitive measures as outweighing the benefits of having such a crime reduction?  Perhaps more importantly, does the general public feel the same?  I’m not so sure.  I’d guess that if pressed, the majority of people (those who are highly unlikely to commit serious crimes) could bring themselves to have less of a problem with a rapist getting life in prison, provided he was given ample capacity for rehabilitation and the lifetime opportunity to repent. 

Is this another case where the State’s protocols are unrepresentative of the popular opinion – or do we in fact embrace the opportunity for shorter sentences and second chances more than our first instincts tell us?  If we don’t, then I don’t know why the State doesn’t do more to bring about the near-eradication of crime.  Actually, I think I do know the answer, and I will present it in my next Blog post. What is clear thus far in our enquiry is that the notions of potential victim pools and recidivism probability are secondary to the urgency of tackling the nasty kinds of prejudice we see in society - the ones that are equally bad irrespective of ratios within a population.

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