Hate Crimes: State and Federal Response to Bias-Motivated Violence

By Grigera, Elena | Corrections Today, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Hate Crimes: State and Federal Response to Bias-Motivated Violence


Grigera, Elena, Corrections Today


Chained to the back of a pickup truck by the ankles and dragged to death - One man's life ended in a heinous murder and the public's conscience awoke to the horrifying headlines describing the mutilated remains of a black man scattered along a road. The slaying last summer of 49-year-old James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, is a harsh reminder to all Americans that violent crimes motivated by prejudice continue to disrupt our nation's sense of racial harmony. Yet, such brutal attacks do not only occur between blacks and whites but among various groups. The nation was made aware once again of the reality of hate crimes in October 1998 by the fatal beating of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo. The 21-year-old college student suffered severe head injuries after being beaten and tied to a wooden fence in near-freezing temperatures. While the Byrd murder was motivated by views of white supremacy, the Shepard murder was triggered because of the victim's sexual orientation. These savage attacks, among many others not reported or covered by the media, have prompted nationwide outrage and have renewed the hate crime debate.

DEFINING THE ISSUE

Due to the mounting public interest in and awareness of hate crimes, as a result of both sensational incidents and general societal concerns, hate crimes have become the subject of highly politicized public debates. While some contend that bias-motivated violence has been a historical part of the American culture and will only change as people become more tolerant of certain groups, others argue that the best way to eradicate such discriminatory behavior is through legal reform. The following focuses on the latter argument by examining hate crime legislation at both the state and federal levels.

A recent and expansive definition of the term "hate crime" can be found in the Hate Crime Sentencing Enhancement Act of 1994, which states, "a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the property that is the object of the crime, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation of any person."(1) Thus, hate offenses are directed against members of a particular group simply because of their membership in that group.

According to the FBI's most recent Hate Crimes Statistics Act (HCSA) report for 1997, there were 8,049 hate crimes reported by 11,211 participating law enforcement agencies in 48 states and the District of Columbia (Hawaii and New Hampshire did not participate in 1997 HCSA reporting).(2) The FBI report indicated that about 59 percent of the reported hate crimes were race-based (4,710 incidents); 17 percent were committed against individuals on the basis of their religion (1,385 incidents); 10 percent on [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE I OMITTED] the basis of ethnicity 836 incidents); and 14 percent on the basis of sexual orientation (1,102 incidents). This report included, for the first time, crimes directed against disabled individuals. In 1997, there were 12 crimes reported to have occurred due to persons' disabilities.(3)

With a closer look at race-based hate crimes, approximately 39 percent of the reported crimes were anti-black (3,120 incidents); 12 percent were anti-white (993 incidents); 4 percent were anti-Asian (347 incidents); .4 percent were anti-American Indian/Alaskan Native (36 incidents); and 3 percent were anti-multiracial group (214 incidents). Of the incidents motivated by religious bias, 1,087 (about 78 percent) were anti-Semitic in nature. Slightly more than 6 percent were anti-Hispanic (491 incidents) and 4 percent were anti-other ethnicities/national origins (345 incidents).

Although the number of hate crimes may seem small when compared with the incidence of other types of crimes in the United States, it can be argued that hate crimes terrorize not one victim but many and that such assaults threaten the very fabric of the American sense of safety and basic understanding of differences. …

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