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Although crimes against individuals based on their race, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation have a long and ignoble history throughout the world, the term hate crime was first popularized in the United States. In 1985 three members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced legislation requiring the U.S. government to collect and publish statistical information on the growing number of bias-motivated crimes committed throughout the country. Enacted in April 1990, the Hate Crimes Statistics Act requires the U.S. Department of Justice to acquire and publish data from local law enforcement agencies on crimes that “manifest prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity.” The coverage was expanded to include disability in 1997. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), “a hate crime, also known as a bias crime, is a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/ national origin.”
The first FBI hate crimes report was published in 1993 and covered the calendar year 1991. Although this report, Hate Crime Statistics, is the official U.S. government tabulation of these crimes, some ethnic and other advocacy groups—including the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium and the National Coalition of AntiViolence Programs, a gay rights organization—conduct their own annual audits of hate crimes. These groups claim that the FBI statistics underreport the number of hate crimes because victims are often afraid to contact law enforcement officials, fearing either stigmatization or the jeopardizing of their status as recent immigrants.
Prior to the passage of national hate crimes reporting legislation, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)—the preeminent Jewish civil rights organization in the United States—drafted model hate crimes legislation in the early 1980s to punish criminal actions aimed at racial and other minority groups, including Jews. As of 2006, forty-six states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation similar to the ADL model. These laws cover a wide variety of criminal activities, including vandalism directed at religious institutions and bias-motivated violence against individuals. Many states have enacted “penalty enhancement” statutes for hate crimes.
Some late twentieth-century bias-motivated crimes have received national attention. When a Hasidic Jewish driver accidentally ran over a seven-year-old African American boy in a Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood in 1991, an anti-Jewish riot ensued and local black youths murdered Yankel Rosenbaum, a visiting Australian scholar. On October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Laramie, Wyoming, was savagely beaten because of his sexual orientation and later died. Earlier that year, James Byrd Jr., a forty-nine-year-old African American man was chained to a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas, and dragged to his death. His attackers were members of a white supremacist group.
Why should a hate crime be treated differently than any other criminal activity directed at individuals or property? What is the legal justification for enhancing the punishment for these crimes? These questions have persisted since the passage of the earliest hate crimes legislation and continue to provoke vigorous debate among legal scholars, legislators, and law enforcement officials. In his scholarly legal and philosophical defense of hate crime statutes, Punishing Hate, law professor Frederick M. Lawrence noted that:
Bias crimes spread fear and intimidation beyond the immediate victims to those who share only racial characteristics with the victims. Members of the target group suffer injuries similar to those felt by the direct victim of the actual crime.… Bias crimes, therefore, cause a greater harm to a society’s collective living standard than do parallel crimes … and thus warrant enhanced criminal punishment. (Lawrence 1999, p. 63)
Legal scholars James B. Jacobs and Kimberly Potter, however, suggest that hate crime laws are unnecessary and create new crime categories that “may exacerbate rather than ameliorate social schisms and conflict” (1998, p. 144). Despite the continuing intellectual debate about the merits of hate crime statutes, the constitutional basis for these laws has been affirmed in the 1993 Supreme Court decision Wisconsin v. Mitchell. In addition, some state courts have upheld the legality of these laws.
Outside the United States, some European countries have enacted laws to criminalize hate crimes. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted in 1993 by the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights, calls on governments around the world to adopt measures “to counter intolerance and related violence based on religion or belief” and other practices directed against different minority groups. In 2005 Human Rights First—formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights—conducted a study of the fifty-five members of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and found that nineteen of the fifty-five OSCE member states had enacted legislation declaring that racist motivation in crimes is to be “considered an aggravating circumstance in sentencing” (McClintock 2005, p. vii). Only five surveyed OSCE countries had hate crime statutes for bias-motivated crimes based on sexual orientation. Most third world countries do not have hate crimes legislation comparable to the West; some Muslim countries, in fact, prosecute homosexual behavior and there is occasional government-sanctioned or citizen-sponsored violence directed at gay men and lesbians.
- Altschiller, Donald. 2005. Hate Crimes: A Reference Handbook. 2nd ed. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hate Crime Statistics. 1995–2005. http://www.fbi.gov/hq/cid/civilrights/hate.htm.
- Gerstenfeld, Phyllis B. 2004. Hate Crimes: Causes, Controls, and Controversies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Jacobs, James B., and Kimberly Potter. 1998. Hate Crimes: Criminal Law and Identity Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Lawrence, Frederick M. 1999. Punishing Hate: Bias Crimes under American Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- McClintock, Michael. 2005. Everyday Fears: A Survey of Violent Hate Crimes in Europe and North America. Washington, DC: Human Rights First.
- United National High Commissioner for Human Rights: World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna on 25 June 1993. Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. http://www.ohchr.org/english/law/vienna.htm.
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