Comment: Understanding the minds of people who commit hate crime

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Raimondo Carta from the London Probation Trust writes for PinkNews on the challenges of rehabilitating those who commit homophobic and racist offences.

After the attack, 17-year old Quddus Ali’s life was never the same. He had been violently assaulted and almost beaten to death by eight men in east London, and suffered long-term physical injuries. Something else in him nearly died that night, too.

“I hate white people,” he later said. “White guys did this to me – and one day I’ll get them.”

Or take the case of Mr E., the Black Christian man who attacked his gay neighbour simply because of his own prejudice towards LGBT people. His life experiences had led him to harbour prejudices against those people who were different to him.

Hate-related offending poses a particular challenge for criminal justice workers because victims are targeted because the assailant hates or is hostile toward what the person is, or what the attacker perceives them to be. Left unmanaged, it has the potential to escalate into more extreme behaviour.

London Probation Trust has developed significant expertise in designing and delivering programmes to rehabilitate hate crime offenders, placing strong emphasis on addressing offenders’ beliefs and attitudes alongside the experiences of the victim.

I was working with an offender the other day, who had been convicted of a racially-motivated assault. He was actively involved in far right-wing extremist activities, was openly prejudiced towards immigrants, and described himself as “Purebred Brit.”

Through our Diversity Awareness and Prejudice toolkit, which is an intensive, long-term course to address hate-driven offending, it soon became apparent that this person’s world view had been instilled when very young.

“That’s all very well,” I hear you say. “That doesn’t give him the right to beat up minorities.” And quite right, too.

But one exercise – linked to the Quddus Ali case – enabled the offender to actually see things from the victim’s perspective, and ultimately to recognise  how contradictory his own views actually were. Developing a sense of  empathy allowed him to examine why he saw the world the way he did – and actively distinguish fact from opinion. Despite his anti-immigration stance, few school qualifications and a blue-collar job, he was not short of brains – when asked to name groups of immigrants came to Britain before the 1700s, his answers were clear and concise: Normans, Romans, Vikings, Moors.

He was what we describe as a “reactive/defensive offender”, targeting ethnic minorities because he perceived them as a threat to his way of life or world view. Adopting that stance as a young man made him feel bigger in the eyes of his father – entrenching prejudices and behaviours which he carried into later life. This is not uncommon: a lack of personal identity can often lead to offenders adopting the distorted views of others. Identity confusion leads this kind of offender to make choices and commitments without stopping to question their own instincts or motivations.

Other hate crime offenders are “thrill seekers”, enabling them to tag along with their peers. “Retaliatory” offenders are determined to hit back at the perceived prejudice they are facing and want to get even. Finally, there are the “mission offenders” – such as the suicidal 7/7 bombers – who are driven by what they see as a noble cause.

To address hate offenders’ lack of empathy, we also challenge them to put themselves in the shoes of their victim: How would you feel if it were you? What would your friends think about the offender if you had been the victim? What do you think the offender would feel if he knew what others thought of him as a result of what he had done?

The answers are often revealing. By accepting responsibility and acknowledging what the victim went through, many offenders reach a more balanced understanding of who they are and what brought them to see the world the way they did – and most importantly, the consequences of their actions.