Frequently asked questions about hate crimes
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 20, 2010 - What is a hate crime?
A hate crime, also known as a bias crime, is a criminal offense committed against a person, property or group that is motivated by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or national origin, according to the FBI.
When was hate crime legislation first enacted?
In 1969. This federal civil rights law permits prosecution of anyone who "willingly injures, intimidates or interferes with another person, or attempts to do so, by force because of the other person's race, color, religion or national origin" when a victim is engaged in certain federally protected activities -- voting, attending school, patronizing a public place, applying for employment or acting as a juror.
How did the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act change the 1969 law?
This measure, signed into law by President Barack Obama on Oct. 28, expands the 1969 law to include crimes motivated by a victim's gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. The bill also:
- removes the requirement that the victim be involved in a federally protected activity.
- allows federal authorities to investigate hate crimes that local authorities choose not to pursue;
- provides $5 million a year through 2012 to help state and local agencies prosecute hate crimes;
- requires the FBI to keep statistics on hate crimes against transgender people.
What is the Hate Crimes Statistics Act?
Enacted in 1990, this law requires the U.S. Department of Justice to collect data on hate crimes from law enforcement across the country. Since then, the FBI has published an annual summary of the findings.
Has the number of hate crimes increased in the past decade?
Since the federal government started keeping track in 1990, the number of hate crimes reported has been consistent -- around 7,500 a year or nearly one hate crime every hour. But many people who are familiar with the issue believe that this number is too low. Attorney General Eric Holder told the ADL last October: "Many police agencies in the country, including in major cities, do not participate in the FBI's reporting system, and many victims do not report the hate crimes perpetuated against them. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics puts the actual annual number of hate crimes in the tens of thousands."
Is a hate crime a federal offense?
The federal government can investigate hate crimes as civil rights violations. But state and local police handle most cases because they tend to involve a "traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias," according to the FBI.
Do local police have to report hate crimes or incidents to the FBI?
No, it is voluntary. That is one reason many people believe the FBI summary understates the problem.
How are hate crimes different from other crimes?
Hate crimes tend to be more violent, involving physical assault, than "regular" crimes. They are motivated by animosity toward the victims for who they are. That's why victims often feel a profound personal violation. Hate crimes are also meant to target a victim's entire community. As a result, they can have a severe psychological impact on communities.
State of hate series
Last November, the Jewish Light received a grant from the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis to study hate violence and its affects not just among Jews, but also other groups. The St. Louis Beacon partnered with the Light on two of the stories, as part of our Race, Frankly series.
Ellen Futterman is editor of the Jewish Light. To reach her, contact Beacon issues and politics editor Susan Hegger.