Steve Chapman

Federal law enforcement officials are not plagued by idleness these days, thanks to the demands on their time from terrorists, drug traffickers, human traffickers, Ponzi schemers and crooked politicians. But Congress never stops trying to ensure full employment for FBI agents and U.S. attorneys. The latest stimulus is the Matthew Shepard Act, billed as an overdue effort to prevent violence against gays and lesbians.

The logic behind the proposed measure is hard to follow. Says sponsoring Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), "No members of society -- none -- deserve to be victims of a violent crime because of their race, their religion, their ethnic background, their disability, their gender, their gender identity, or their sexual orientation." Which raises the question: Who exactly does deserve to be the victim of a violent crime?

The bill targets actions we would all like to eliminate -- physically injuring or trying to injure someone with "fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device." But it's hard to imagine that it would reduce the prevalence of such conduct, which is already 1) really, really illegal and 2) subject to harsh penalties.

This legislation would add extra punishment for attacks designated as hate crimes. But if a criminal is not deterred by the fear of five years behind bars, he's probably not going to be pushed onto the straight and narrow by the prospect of six.

In the case of attacks like the one on Matthew Shepard, a gay college student beaten to death in Wyoming in 1998, the statute would be superfluous. His killers were eligible for the death penalty, though both made deals that assured they would be locked up for the rest of their lives. For the most horrific hate crimes, the change would accomplish absolutely nothing.

That's not the only way in which it would constitute an exercise in irrelevance. Already, 45 states have hate crime laws, and two-thirds of them include crimes against gays and lesbians. In the remaining states, you will be relieved to know, such attacks are punished as violent felonies.

The old rationale for federal hate crimes legislation was that bigoted local cops and prosecutors were ignoring vicious assaults on minorities. But supporters have to admit things have changed. The Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, notes that "85 percent of law enforcement officials surveyed recognize bias motivated violence to be more serious than similar crimes not motivated by bias."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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