New York State Bishops Statement on Hate Crimes Legislation

Published on November 16th, 1999

In New York State and throughout our nation, the concern of religious, community and elected leaders about bias-related violence has prompted legislative initiatives designed to increase criminal penalties for such offenses.

To date, we have not taken a public policy position on the merits of specific legislation designed to address such crimes. In response to requests, we have now examined our position regarding various proposals currently before our State Legislature.

After a deliberate and careful analysis, it is our judgment, for the reasons stated below, that we are unable to support these proposals, but we remain open to consideration of any further legislative proposals. Such position, however, should not be misconstrued either to imply that we do not appreciate the intent of this legislation or that we are not concerned about the form of these bills. We are committed to continue to participate in the process and dialogue and to apply the Church’s teachings with compassion to each piece of legislation as proposed.

As Catholics, we share with the proponents of anti-hate legislation a deep concern over deplorable attacks on individuals based on their perceived membership in a particular group or class. Indeed, at various times in our 2000 years as a Church, it has been Catholics who have been and are now the targets of such violence. We empathize fully with all those who find themselves victimized by violent, bias-motivated crimes. We stress that bias-motivated violence against all persons, whether based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, age, national origin or sexual orientation, in speech or in action, is reprehensible and deserves condemnation from all whenever it occurs.

Clearly, the stated intent of the legislation – reducing bias related crime and protecting potential victims – is laudable and is consistent with the central teachings of the Church, in upholding the sanctity of all human life, the equality and dignity of each human being and the fundamental right of each human being to enjoy respect, peace, justice and fairness.

At the same time, however, we have serious policy concerns that versions of the proposed legislation currently under consideration, in an attempt to achieve a well-intended goal which we find consistent with the positions of the New York State Catholic Conference, and the best interest of society in general, might be used to advance, in part, a policy agenda that is at the same time inconsistent with those positions and society’s best interest.
Instructive is the position that we have expressed with respect to the Rockefeller Drug Laws. We have criticized those portions of that legislation which:

  • Fail to provide alternatives to incarceration
  • Through mandatory sentencing provisions remove judicial discretion in sentencing on a case by case basis
  • Fail to distinguish in terms of punishment between major drug kingpins and low-level non-violent offenders.

We are concerned that the form of the current legislative anti-bias proposals, by the imposition of increased criminality and/or mandatory sentencing, contains the same or similar pitfalls contained in the Rockefeller Drug Laws in that these proposals:

  •  Fail to provide alternatives to incarceration
  • Remove judicial discretion in sentencing and provide for additional punishment through increased levels of criminality and consecutive sentencing
  • Fail to distinguish between an isolated offense and deep-seated bias
  • Create a new level of criminality based on non-specific standards and prosecutorial discretion with the potential for disparate application.

We are also not convinced that current anti-bias proposals would be effective in deterring bias-crimes. There are already federal and state laws to punish such crimes. We suggest that primary intervention through education and rehabilitation is the best method of addressing the ignorance and deep-seated prejudices that underlie such actions, rather than further criminalization of the population.

We are deeply sensitive to the suffering that crime, particularly bias-related crime, inflicts on victims and their families, and to the long-term damage it causes to the social fabric. Particularly troubling is the high incidence of crime among young people, which raises disturbing questions about current society and ominous concerns about the future. We must commit ourselves ever more to working as a society to enhance respect for the rights of all, and to identify and address the root causes of crime. Through every aspect of our pastoral ministry and through our preaching of the Word of God, we strive to promote love, respect and tolerance for every human being as created in the image of God.

We conclude, therefore, that given all of the above concerns, we are unable to support any of the various forms of the proposed legislation, but we remain open to consideration of any further legislative proposals.

—Roman Catholic Bishops of New York State

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