In the past few weeks, legislators in at least four states have responded to escalated media coverage of the so-called “Knockout Game” with proposals to ratchet up penalties and jail time for defendants who seemingly participated in the game.
Bills in New York, New Jersey, and Oklahoma are geared specifically at punishing those who participate in the “Knockout Game” — a purported game played mostly by young people who try to knock out a stranger out in one punch, which has perpetuated media portrayals of mostly black perpetrators with white victims. Legislators in Pennsylvania are also discussing a bill to create a new intermediate assault charge in response to “Knockout” reports.
These bills propose increased jail time and mandatory minimum sentences for crimes that are associated with the knock-out game, and also would subject juveniles to adult sentencing. Text of the bills is not yet available, but descriptions suggest that defendants who would otherwise be charged with another type of assault would be punished more harshly purely for their association with the so-called “Knock-out Game.” In New York, those who committed an act that jibes with perceptions of the game would be charged with a Class D felony rather than a Class B felony, meaning sentences are ratcheted up from a range of 4 to 15 years to one of of 5 to 25 years. Assemblyman James Tedisco’s (R) Chief of Staff, Adam Kramer, told ThinkProgress the bill does not actually include the term “knockout game.” Instead, he said, it describes conduct that tracks the game. He did not have the bill’s language, but characterized it as a “gang assault where someone sucker punches an innocent or hits an innocent bystander with the sole purpose of just hitting him for no reason.” The bill does not encompass conduct like robberies or a bar fight, he said.
Those who are subject to Class D felony charges are not just the assaulters, but also bystanders who may have “egged on the assailant,” or “videotape it for the purpose of gratification.” When probed about how a prosecutor or judge would distinguish “knockout game” crimes from others, Kramer said only, “It would be just like any other crime.”
The New Jersey bill likewise establishes a mandatory minimum penalty for those who participate in “Knockout Game” assaults to one year in prison. Others charged with aggravated assault are subject to between 3 and 5 years in prison, but do not face a mandatory minimum and may not be given jail time. In Oklahoma, State Rep. Bobby Cleveland (R) says he plans to file a bill to make “unprovoked battery” a felony rather than misdemeanor charge.
Amidst a flurry of recent reports about the game, police have questioned whether reported assaults are actually part of a coordinated “game.” And even victims of attacks characterized as part of the “Knockout Game” have come forward to debunk assertions that their own attacks were part of the game. Slate’s Matthew Yglesias recounted that after he was a victim of a random assault, it was characterized by conservative bloggers with a “racist bent” as an instance of the “Knockout King,” even though he was knocked down but not out.
The so-called “Knockout Game” has been portrayed by some media outlets as a new phenomenon, but the term dates back to 2011, when a group of kids who called themselves the “knockout clan” beat up a 51-year-old man. The phenomenon has since taken on a racial tinge, used by several conservative groups to describe violence against whites. More recently, the term has been used to describe incidents by African Americans against Jews. In the past few weeks, outlets including CNN have perpetuated caricatures of this racial dynamic, having a rabbi on to talk about defending oneself against African Americans in the “animal kingdom.”
The frenzy to treat particular individuals differently who comport with a so-called trend could lead to disproportionate outcomes, and punish some — including many juveniles — more harshly for offenses that are effectively similar. There is a long history in the United States of treating crimes associated with blacks differently than those associated with whites. Until the Fair Sentencing Act was passed in 2010 to eliminate the racial disparity, crack-cocaine offenses — typically associated with blacks — garnered sentences 100 times as harsh as those given to powder cocaine offenses — linked to Caucasians.