A hate crime (bias crime), loosely defined, is a crime committed because of the perpetrator's prejudices. This is a controversial political issue within the US. The US Congress (HR 4797 - 1992) defined a hate crime as: "[a crime in which] the defendant's conduct was motivated by hatred, bias, or prejudice, based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation of another individual or group of individuals." In 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act added disabilities to the above list.
In the last decade of the 20th century, U.S. legislation established harsher penalties for a number of crimes when they are also considered hate crimes. While some claim that hate crimes laws exist because women and certain minorities have been victims and require special protection, others say that they exist because crimes motivated by hate deserve a harsher punishment.
Criticism of Hate Crime Legislation
Opponents of hate crimes legislation argue that such legislation provides special status to certain protected groups. They say that a crime is a crime, no matter the motivation, and that crimes should not carry a heavy penalty just because of the criminal's hate. They also say that distinguishing a hate crime requires reading the mind of the accused, a dubious prospect at best, and that the definition of hate crimes needlessly opens the legal system to further abuses. In short, critics argue that hate crime legislation criminalizes thought (see: thoughtcrime) and denies equal protection.
Proponents of Hate Crime Legislation
Conversely, proponents have held that hatred causing violence is a social problem of sufficient scope and persistence to require special measures by legislators and law enforcement to secure the safety of the groups targetted by hate crimes. Supporters reason that one who can be moved to violence by hatred of a class of people presents greater danger to society than one who merely hates an individual. They posit that if normal punishments are inadequate deterrents, then additional punishments may deter crimes motivated by hate. Some proponents suggest that hate crimes laws protect all groups, not just minorities and women. Other proponents of hate crime legislation consider that that politically correct or socially sanctioned hate is a problem, and that legislation will need to explicitly cover those often deemed less worthy of protection, such as men.
Proponents point out that
it is not unusual to make thoughts or states of mind elements of a crime.
For example, the distinction between first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter depends on the degree to which the killing was deliberate or premeditated. The definition of fraud requires that the perpetrator knowingly defraud the victim.
In English law, the basis of the United States' law, the state of a person's mind has always been important in determining the fact or seriousness of a crime. "Mens rea" (guilty mind) is required to convict most felonies. If one plotted a murder, one should be found guilty in the first degree. If another acted in passion, without forethought, it should be classified as second-degree or simple murder, with a reduced penalty. If the act resulting in death were merely careless or inattentive, negligent homicide or manslaughter should be the finding. Similarly with drugs; unlawful possession causes one level of crime. Possession with intent to sell is more serious.
Hate crime legislation extends this principle by including personal prejudice among the states of mind that can result in an extension of punishment for a criminal action.
Hate crimes are not committed against just one group of people. Hate crimes against all races, genders and sexual orientations have been prosecuted.
It can be difficult to distinguish a hate crime from other crimes. Usually, a hate crime is detected by a background investigation of the accused person or eyewitness reports of the crime. In some cases, circumstantial evidence shows the intent of the accused. For example, handwritten journals might describe the hatred and contain plans for crimes to be committed against the hated group. In other cases, classification of a hate crime is by the judgment of the law enforcement personnel and prosecuting attorney.
It can be much harder convict a "hate crime" than a normal crime. This may affect whether the prosecuting attorney pursues prosecution under the 'hate crime' statute. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation sets forth very strict rules that police and prosecutors across the U.S. use in order to decide whether or not a crime qualifies as a hate crime.
While the hate crime definition used by the FBI for purposes of crime statistics includes sexual orientation, disability and gender as protected categories, this is not the case for all hate crime laws. As of October 2001, the U.S. federal hate crime law (18 U.S.C. 245 (b)(2) passed in 1969) protects religion, race and national origin and applies only if the victim is engaged in one of six protected activities. Seven states have no hate crime laws, twenty states have hate crime laws that do not protect sexual orientation, and twenty-four states have hate crime laws that do include sexual orientation.
Newsmedia may abuse the term "hate crime" to increase sales. The term is also misused by both liberals and conservatives in an effort to inflame voter passions. This can prejudice law enforcement or court proceedings, as well as being inaccurate and misleading.
A generic example of a hate crime would be a criminal that steals money only from females because the criminal hates females. It would not be a hate crime if the criminal stole money only from women because he thought that women were easier targets.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has initiated private prosecutions on behalf of some past and future victims of hate crimes.
- James Byrd, Jr
- Matthew Shepard