A man and his boyfriend in Atlanta spent 10 days and nearly one month in a hospital, respectively, after another man, Martin Blackwell, poured boiling hot water on them, allegedly because of their sexual orientation.
And on Wednesday, a jury found Blackwell guilty of eight counts of aggravated battery and two counts of aggravated assault, Cleve Wootson reported for the Washington Post. Blackwell was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Anthony Gooden and Marquez Tolbert were sleeping in Gooden's apartment on February 12 when Blackwell, the boyfriend of Gooden's mother, walked in. According to Tolbert, Blackwell poured boiling water on the men, causing severe burns that required surgery to treat. Blackwell, who didn't live in the apartment, told Tolbert, "Get out of my house with all that gay shit."
"The pain doesn't let you sleep. It's just, like, it's excruciating, 24 hours a day, and it doesn't go anywhere," Tolbert told Atlanta's WSB-TV. "It doesn't dial down, anything. It's just there."
Blackwell said the men were having sex when he poured hot water on them, Sarah Kaplan reported for the Washington Post. But Vickie Gray, a friend of Tolbert's, said they were sleeping, although the attack wouldn't be justified if the men were having sex.
The story shows that hate crimes are still a real threat for LGBTQ Americans. But it also shows the limits of policy responses to hate crimes, which are often focused on making prison sentences for such crimes even longer. In this case, Blackwell didn't face a hate crime charge because Georgia doesn't have a hate crime law — but he still got a very long prison sentence. So would an extra hate crime charge really help deter these kind of crimes in the future, or just contribute to the kind of excessive incarceration that has made America the world's leader in imprisonment?
Georgia doesn't have a hate crime law for LGBTQ people — or anyone else
Like 19 other states in the US, Georgia doesn't include sexual orientation in its hate crime laws, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
In fact, Georgia has no hate crime law at all. According to the Anti-Defamation League, it joins just four other states that don't: Arkansas, Indiana, South Carolina, and Wyoming.
Federal officials are considering hate crime charges against Blackwell, according to the Post. Federal hate crime laws include sexual orientation and gender identity following the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.
Americans supported the addition: A 2009 Gallup survey found 67 percent of Americans supported including gay and lesbian people in federal hate crime laws.
The FBI reported more than 1,000 incidents of hate crimes in 2014 against someone based on sexual orientation, but the data is likely incomplete for all LGBTQ people. Still, the reported count averages to nearly three incidents of hate crimes based on sexual orientation each day in the US.
But Blackwell's case also demonstrates a key argument against hate crime laws. Without a hate crime law, Blackwell is already being punished for a very long time for his clearly dangerous, harmful actions. If Georgia did have a hate crime law, it would just add even more punishments to crimes that are already severely punished. For a country currently trying to undo mass incarceration, that's a problem.
These are the kinds of prison sentences that led to mass incarceration
There is no doubt Blackwell's crime was abhorrent. He severely hurt — and could have killed — two men just for their sexual orientation. It's totally reprehensible.
At the same time, the 40-year prison sentence, even if he doesn't serve the entire time due to parole, is a very harsh punishment, especially for a crime that didn't end up with anyone dead. In comparison, Norway, which has much less violent crime than the US, limits prison terms for all crimes to 21 years — with some extensions if they're deemed necessary.
It's also the kind of punishment that led America to become the world's leader in incarceration. While the war on drugs gets a lot of attention for its contribution to mass incarceration, the reality is that the biggest contributor was the rapid expansion — through other "tough-on-crime" policies — of punishments for violent crimes like murder, robbery, and assault.
We can see the result in the incarceration statistics: The plurality of the jail and prison population — about 40 percent — is in for violent offenses, while about 21 percent of people in prison are in for drug offenses.
For criminal justice reformers, this means a key requirement for undoing mass incarceration — by, say, reducing the overall prison population by 50 percent, which is closer to historical levels in the US — will require reducing long prison sentences for violent offenses. The Marshall Project made a great interactive demonstrating this:
This can be done without endangering the public. Studies show that people age out of crime, so letting them out of prison a couple, five, 10, or even 20 years down the line — instead of the much longer sentences that can be applied today (up to life without parole) — might not pose a threat to public safety. (Criminal justice experts Mark Kleiman, Angela Hawken, and Ross Halperin detailed one plan to cut the prison population safely in a great Vox piece.)
It's certainly not an easy issue. Americans want to harshly punish people like Blackwell to show them that their actions are horrific and wrong. But in the interest of making our justice system more proportional and just, it may be necessary.