The latest episode of the BBC Radio 4 podcast Thinking Allowed discusses hate crimes. Presenter Laurie Taylor interviewed Sylvia Lancaster, whose daughter Sophie was attacked and murdered by a group of teenage thugs in August of 2007 because she and her partner Robert Maltby were dressed as Goths (Maltby was also attacked and severely injured, and as of October of 2008 had not completely recovered). The five teenagers responsible were convicted and given sentences ranging from four to sixteen years in prison.
As a result of this, Lancaster is leading the fight to expand Britain's hate crimes law to include
. . .attacks on people from sub cultures to be classified as a hate crime, allowing judges the power to issue tougher penalties.
In May 2009, then-Justice Minister Jack Straw announced upcoming changes to sentencing guidlines to take into consideration whether victims are members of a subculture.
Taylor explores the question "What is a subculture?" in his interview with Lancaster and Jon Garland, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Leicester:
TAYLOR: It's an odd question to have to ask, but how distinctive do they have to be in order to constitute a group who could be said to be the object of a hate crime?
GARLAND: Now I think that's, that's a very good question. I think one of the things that makes, say, alternative people, people from alternative subcultures something different is becuase they have got a history and also perhaps a sense of identity and community. So they are actually rather than just being sort of individuals that are targeted, they're part of this quite close-knit community that has a strong identity and an established history. I think that's one of the important things in this case.
But it's clear, to them at least, that not all subcultures are created equal:
TAYLOR: [what about] attacks on neo-Nazi groups, for example?
GARLAND: Yes, then we are on thorny territory, I think -
LANCASTER: But they've not got the same norms and values, have they?
TAYLOR: Well, neo-Nazi groups might say they share, you know, values, they share certain ways of dressing, the crew cuts, the heavy boots, or whatever, you know, that they have a distinctive thing, if they're attacked by the Socialist Labor League and flattened, presumably we want to invoke 'hate crime' in court there, do we?
GARLAND: Well, I wouldn't necessarily advocate that myself -
GARLAND: - I see the point you're making, it's where to draw the line, and this surrounds all of this hate crime debate, you know, it's regarding legislation, how we treat victims, who is a victim. And so far, at the moment, we're drawing the line in a certain place, and I think, you know, the great work Sylvia's done, is raising awareness that this line is more permeable than we thought. This boundary isn't as solid.
So, in the end, who gets to decide whether someone can have a hate crime committed against them, and what standard do they use? Until those questions get answered to my satisfaction, I'll have a problem with hate crime laws.