Hate Crime in America: The Debate Continues
by Michael Shively, Ph.D., and Carrie F. Mulford, Ph.D.
About the Authors
Dr. Shively is an associate in the Center for Crime and Drug Policy
at Abt Associates Inc. Dr. Mulford is a social science analyst at the
National Institute of Justice.
In December 2000, in Brooklyn, New York, Mohammad Awad punched
Chaim Spear while yelling obscenities and anti-Semitic
nearby Queens, Nicholas Minucci, a Caucasian, fractured
the skull of African American Glenn Moore with a baseball
bat and robbed him in June 2005. Witnesses testified that
Minucci used a racial slur before and during the
In October 1998, near Laramie, Wyoming, Russell Henderson
and Aaron McKinney robbed, beat, and tied Matthew Shepard,
a gay man, to a fence. Five days after the attack, Shepard
died from his injuries. In
Houston, Texas, David Tuck attacked and sexually assaulted
a Hispanic teenager in April 2006. Tuck shouted white power
and racial slurs during the attack.
Awad and Minucci were each convicted of a hate crime. Wyoming,
where Shepard was murdered, does not have a hate-crime
statute. Houston authorities did not charge Tuck with a
hate crime because the charges against him already carried
a life sentence.
In many cases, hate may be seen or perceived by the victims,
their families, witnesses, and even law enforcement to
be the motivation for a crime, but perpetrators may not be
charged with a hate crime for a variety of reasonsmany
of the same reasons that the debate on hate-crime laws
continues in this country.
Legislators, law enforcement officials, prosecutorsand
the American publiccontinue to grapple with fundamental
questions in the hate-crime debate:
- How do we defineand identifyhate crime?
- How prevalent are these types of crime?
- How do we prosecute, punish, and, ultimately, prevent hate crime?
- How do we meet the needs of hate-crime victims?
In a study funded by the National Institute of Justice,
Michael Shively, Ph.D., of Abt Associates Inc., conducted a
comprehensive analysis of the literature and statutes on
hate crime to determine how Federal and State legislation
and programs are wrestling with these
Scope of the Problem
Accurate estimates of the prevalence of hate crime remain
elusive. National hate-crime data come from two primary sources:
the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Uniform Crime
Reporting Program and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)
National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). Unfortunately,
the types of data collected by these agencies differ, which
creates difficulties in accurately assessing the prevalence
of hate crime.
In a study of law enforcement agencies, the FBI found that
7,163 hate-crime incidents, affecting 8,795 victims, were
reported in 2005 to police departments that participated
in the study.
Estimating incidents involving elements of hate crime during
an earlier time periodJuly 2000 through December
2003BJS coupled results from victim interviews with
additional factors such as offender use of derogatory language
or hate symbols to estimate an annual average of 191,000
incidents, affecting 210,000 victims.
The disparity in these two estimates stems, in part, from
an important difference in the data collected: the FBI counts
only crimes that are reported to the police. For the NCVS,
BJS collects information from victims, who are asked if they
think hate played a role in the crime. The potential for
overreporting and underreporting incidents involving elements
of hate crime must also be considered. For instance, only
44 percent of the alleged incidents in the NCVS database
were reported to the police,
so underreporting may account for at least some of the
disparity in these estimates of the prevalence of hate
crime in this country. One study indicates that people
may be reluctant to report for fear of police insensitivity
All of this suggests that despite progress in methods of data
collection, the current data may not be sufficient to gauge
the true scope of the problem.
Laws and Legislation
The Federal Government and all but one State (Wyoming) have
specific hate-crime laws. The laws vary significantly from
State to State, however, and there is no standard legal
definition of hate crime. For example, although nearly all
States specify race, religion, or ethnicity as characteristics of
protected groups, other characteristics are not always
included. (See chart, States With Laws
for Protected Groups.)
Hate-crime laws may define:
- Groups that are protected (e.g., religion, race or ethnicity,
gender, disability, and sexual orientation).
- A range of predicate or underlying crimes (e.g., assault).
- A requirement that hate or bias motivated the offense.
- Penalty enhancements.
- Provisions for civil remedies.
- Requirements for data collection.
- Training requirements for law enforcement personnel.
Although most States allow broad categories of predicate or
underlying offenses to be charged as a hate crime
(such as assault, vandalism, and a wide variety of misdemeanors
and felonies) and provide for penalty enhancements, only
about half the States have enacted statutes that require
data collection and offer victims a specific recourse for
recovering damages. Statutory provisions
addressing the training of law enforcement
personnel to deal with hate crime exist in
only 12 States. On the Federal level, a 1994
law mandates longer sentences for hate
crime committed under Federal jurisdiction.
These differences in laws from State to
Stateand on the Federal levelmake it
difficult to ensure consistency in the prosecution
of hate crime.
One of the most significant issues in the
debate is the lack of national consensus that
hate crime should be considered a separate
class of crime. In addition, even supporters
of hate-crime legislation disagree about how
the statutes should be written. Other major
questions in the debate include:
- Should hate or bias motivation be
considered when the underlying offense,
such as assault or vandalism, is already
covered by criminal law?
- Do hate-crime laws punish thoughts
rather than actions?
- What are the ramifications of basing
additional penalties upon the thoughts
that motivate offenders rather than on
the behavior itself?
- Is it possible to determine with legally
acceptable certainty the motive behind
a persons criminal acts?
- Do hate-crime laws result in more severe
punishments for crimes against certain
groups of people than for equivalent
crimes committed against other groups?
- Are hate-crime victims more traumatized
than other victims of the same underlying
offense because they feel personally
- Does hate crime increase fear in the
community beyond what might exist
for similar crimes that are not motivated
Some States have struck down hate-crime
statutes as too broad or vague. Most of
the highest State courts that have heard
challenges on First Amendment grounds
to the penalty enhancement provision of
hate-crime laws have upheld bias as a
rationale for harsher punishments. The
U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Wisconsin
hate-crime penalty enhancement, ruling that
it did not suppress free speech because the
statute is motivated by the States desire
to redress a greater societal harm that is
inflicted by bias-inspired conduct, not by
an attempt to suppress thoughts.
(See sidebar, Where Did
the Term Hate Crime Come From?)
Other Responses to Hate Crime
Many jurisdictions have established hate-crime
units in their police departments,
and some regional task forces are devoted
to investigating hate crime. Some States
have increased law enforcement training
on hate crime and implemented school- and
community-based prevention programs.
California and Massachusetts are notable
for including these and other strategies in
their efforts to combat hate crime.
Nonprofit organizations have also directed
resources to prevention programs,
services to victims, and civil lawsuits
filed on behalf of victims against hate-crime
Although these initiatives have generated
anti-hate-crime best practices, based
on experience and backed by expert
opinion, they have not been rigorously
evaluated to determine if they are
successful in increasing arrest and
prosecution, preventing hate crime,
or supporting victims.
Current Research on Hate Crime
Information about the characteristics of
hate-crime offenses is based primarily on
NCVS victim reports and on police reports
filed through the National Incident-Based
Reporting System. Both indicate that bias
regarding race is the most common motivation
behind a hate crime. African Americans,
for example, are targeted twice as often as
Caucasians, according to these databases. The chart
Victim Reports of
lists the motivations
behind hate crimes as reported by
victims who participated in a 20002003
A large body of research exists on prejudice
and bias, but it does not explain why
prejudice prompts people to commit a
Only a few studies have attempted to examine the
characteristics of hate-crime offenders, and these have
not been definitive. A North Carolina study found
that perpetrators of hate crime were more
likely than other citizens to express bigoted
but this conclusion comes as no surprise. The North Carolina
researchers were unable to statistically distinguish
hate-crime perpetrators from other citizens
based solely on attitudes, thus suggesting
that there are factors beyond attitude that
cause individuals to commit hate crime. To
date, there simply has not been sufficient
research to identify the characteristics that
distinguish perpetrators of hate crimes from
people with bigoted attitudes who do not
engage in such acts.
Another way of analyzing criminal behavior is through offender
typologies or categories.
The most widely discussed and accepted of these was
formulated by Jack McDevitt, Jack Levin, and Susan
on a study of 169 cases in Boston, these
researchers identified four major categories
of hate-crime motivation:
- Thrill-seeking. Offenders who are
motivated by a desire for excitement
- Defensive. Offenders who commit hate
crime to protect their turf or resources in
a situation that they consider threatening
- Retaliatory. Offenders acting to avenge
a perceived insult or assault (8 percent).
- Mission. Offenders who are so strongly
committed to bigotry that hate becomes
their career (less than 1 percent).
No attempt has been made to validate or replicate these
typologies even though they are widely used in training
law enforcement officers to identify and investigate
hate crime. Another study investigated self-reported
antigay aggression in the San Francisco Bay area and
identified four categories of offenders similar to those
proposed by McDevitt.
That study corroborates, but does not scientifically validate,
Suggestions for the Future
The Abt Associates report identifies the
need for more research in the following areas:
- A method for more accurately estimating
the prevalence of hate crime.
- An evaluation of the impact of hate-crime
legislation on deterrence, punishment,
enforcement, training, and reporting.
- The motivations behind hate crime and
the development of empirically based
- How membership in or affiliation with
hate groups (or exposure to their literature)
affects the commission of crime.
- The effect of hate crime on victims and
- An evaluation of programs designed to
prevent and respond to hate crime and
to assist hate-crime victims.
The American Society of Criminology has
supported these recommendations.
The Abt Associates report also recommends
the development of a Federal central
repository of hate-crime information to help
resolve inconsistencies in how hate crime
is defined and how data are collected and
analyzed. The report maintains that such
a repository could disseminate research
findings and information on programs, and
thereby lead to a better use of resources
in preventing and developing responses to
States With Laws for Protected Groups
||No. of States
Return to text
Victim Reports of Hate-Crime Motivations
||Percent of Incidents
Harlow, C.W., Hate Crime Reported by Victims and Police
(2005) p.3, available at
Percentages in this exhibit add up to more
than 100 percent because some respondents indicated more
than one motivation.
with people who have certain characteristics,
for example, a multiracial couple.
Return to text
WHERE DID THE TERM 'HATE CRIME COME FROM?
The term hate crime was coined in the 1980s by journalists
and policy advocates who were attempting to describe a series
of incidents directed at African Americans, Asians, and Jews.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines hate crimealso
called bias crimeas a criminal offense committed against
a person, property, or society that is motivated, in whole
or in part, by the offenders bias against a race, religion,
disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin.
Return to text
For More Information
This article is based on:
- Shively, M., Study of Literature and Legislation on Hate
Crime in America, final report submitted to the National
Institute of Justice, Washington, DC: June 2005 (NCJ 210300),
available at www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/210300.pdf.
- Hate Crime Statistics 2005, Washington,
DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal
Bureau of Investigation, October 2006, available
- Harlow, C.W., Hate Crime Reported by Victims and Police,
Special Report, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice,
Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2005 (NCJ 209911): 1,
available at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/hcrvp.pdf.
Other resources include:
- Bureau of Justice Assistance, Addressing
Hate Crimes: Six Initiatives That Are
Enhancing the Efforts of Criminal Justice
Practitioners, Washington, DC: U.S.
Department of Justice, Bureau of
Justice Assistance, 2000.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime
in the United States 2004: Hate Crime,
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of
Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation,
- D.C. Bias Crimes Task Force, Prevention of Bias/Hate
Crimes Starts With You! Washington, DC: U.S.
Attorneys Office for the District of Columbia.
NIJ does not exercise control over external Web sites. Read our Exit Notice.
||Awad pled guilty to assault as a hate crime.
He received 5 years probation and was
required to attend an anger-management
course. Bahrampour, T., Metro BriefingNew York:
Prosecution, New York Times [online],
June 27, 2001 (accessed January 31, 2007).
||A Queens, New York jury convicted Minucci
of second-degree assault as a hate crime.
He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Fat Nick Gets 15 Years for Bat Attack,
New York Daily News, July 17, 2006 accessed February 2, 2007).
||Henderson pled guilty to felony murder
and kidnapping. A Laramie jury found
McKinney guilty of two counts of felony
murder. Both are serving two consecutive
life sentences without the possibility of
parole. Cart, J. Killer of Gay Student Is
Spared Death Penalty; Courts: Matthew
Shepards Father Says Life in Prison Shows
'Mercy to Someone Who Refused to Show
Any Mercy, Los Angeles Times, November
||A district court
in Houston sentenced Tuck to life in prison for aggravated
sexual assault. Anti-Defamation League, Texas White
Supremacist Receives Life Sentence, December 1, 2006,
available at www.adl.org/learn/extremism_in_the_news/White_Supremacy/racistskinhead_texas_1106.ht (accessed February 2, 2007).
||Shively, M., Study
of Literature and Legislation on Hate Crime in America,
final report to the National Institute of Justice,
Washington, DC: June 2005 (NCJ 210300), available at
||Hate Crime Statistics
2005, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice,
Federal Bureau of Investigation, October 2006, available at
||The NCVS contained interviews of 243
hate-crime victims. BJS then used a
statistical method to estimate that this
figure represents an annual, nationwide
average of approximately 210,000 hate-crime
victims. Harlow, C.W., Hate Crime
Reported by Victims and Police, Special
Report, Washington, DC: U.S. Department
of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics,
November 2005 (NCJ 209911): 1, available at
||Nolan, J.J., and Y. Akiyama, The Hate Crime
Statistics Act of 1990: Developing a Method
for Measuring the Occurrence of Hate
Violence, American Behavioral Scientist
46 (2002): 136-153.
||Wisconsin v. Mitchell,
508 U.S. 476 (1993).
||Green, D.P., L.H. McFalls, and J.K. Smith,
Hate Crime: An Emergent Research
Agenda, Annual Review of Sociology
27 (2001): 279-504.
||Green, D.P., R.P. Abelson, and M. Garnett,
The Distinctive Political Views of Hate-Crime
Perpetrators and White Supremacists,
in Cultural Divides: Understanding and
Overcoming Group Conflict, ed. D.A. Prentice,
and D.T. Miller, New York: Russell Sage
Foundation, 1999: 429-464.
||Although a typology is not a formal theory,
it provides a useful way of organizing
||McDevitt, J., J. Levin, and S. Bennett, Hate
Crime Offenders: An Expanded Typology,
Journal of Social Issues 58 (2002): 303-317.
The researchers analyzed 169 cases handled
by the Community Disorders Unit of the
Boston Police Department in 1991-1992.
||Franklin, K., Antigay Behaviors Among Young
Adults: Prevalence, Patterns, and Motivations
in a Noncriminal Population, Journal of
Interpersonal Violence 15 (2000): 4, 339-362.