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Hate Crimes - Scope Of The Problem

bias increased level statistics

Although there is some reason to believe that the level of bias crimes increased over the last two decades of the twentieth century, it remains difficult to gauge whether the bias crime problem has actually worsened. During the 1980s, public concern over the level of bias-motivated violence in the United States rose dramatically. Such concern and the consequent enactment of bias crime statutes across the United States probably stemmed, at least in part, from an apparent worsening of the bias crime problem. Statistics from both independent and governmental data-gathering organizations support the conclusion that bias crime increased over the course of the 1980s and, to a large extent, leveled off during the 1990s. These statistics, however, remain inconsistent and incomplete. Moreover, the statistics gathered toward the end of the 1980s and throughout the early to mid-1990s reflected not only a growth in the bias crime problem, but also a growth in legislative and administrative awareness of the problem.

In general, experts and commentators on bias crime agree that these crimes had, throughout the mid and late 1980s and early 1990s, increased annually. The main organizations that collect data on the subject of bias-motivated violence—the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force—all reported such persistent growth.

In 1990 Congress passed the Hate Crime Statistics Act (HCSA) in an effort to provide official statistics concerning the level of bias crimes. Under this act, the Department of Justice must collect statistics on the incidence of bias crimes in the United States as a part of its regular information-gathering system. The Attorney General delegated the development and implementation of the HCSA to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting Program for incorporation among its sixteen thousand voluntary law enforcement agency participants. Beginning with the HCSA's implementation in 1991 and through the early 1990s, the F.B.I. documented a general rise in bias crimes. However, these figures, like those reported by other data-gathering organizations, remain vulnerable to charges of inaccuracy. Because the F.B.I.'s numbers simply mirror the numbers reported by state and local law enforcement agencies, and because agency participation under the HCSA is voluntary, the completed data more aptly reflect popular perception of the bias crime problem rather than the problem itself.

There is a mutual-feedback relationship between the bias crime problem and both the popular perception and official response to the problem. A perceived increase in bias crime as fostered by independent data-gathering and reporting leads to increased public concern regarding such crimes. Such concern leads, in succession, to legislative and administrative response, to increased official reporting, and, in effect, to an even greater perceived increase in bias crime. Thus, problem and perception conflate, and the apparent growth in bias crime becomes not simply a reflection of increased hatred and apathy (as the statistics alone would suggest) but also an indication of increased understanding and action (as the increased response to the problem suggests).

On the other hand, there is reason to believe that, despite increased bias crime reporting by police agencies, a majority of bias crime victims do not report incidents at all. Victims' distrust of the police, language barriers, and fear of either retaliation by the offender or public exposure generally may well lead to systemic underreporting of bias crimes.

In addition to all of the problems with measuring the current level of bias crimes, there is a significant problem with establishing a baseline for a meaningful comparison. Data collection on the levels of bias crimes prior to the mid-1980s was virtually nonexistent. For example, it was not until 1978 that the Boston City Police Department became the first law enforcement agency to track bias-motivated crimes; it was not until 1981 that Maryland became the first state to pass a reporting statute.

It is thus not possible to say with confidence the extent to which bias crimes are increasing and the extent to which the increase is one of perception. However, the obvious relationship between perception and problem in no way undercuts the severity of the problem. Whatever the difficulties of measuring bias crime levels with precision, the existence of a serious level of bias-motivated crime is confirmed. Moreover, the mutual-feedback relationship between the level of bias crime and the popular perception of this level does not necessarily undermine a determination of the severity of the problem. As the understanding of what constitutes a bias crime is broadened, that which may have been dismissed as a "prank" in an earlier time is now properly revealed as bias-motivated criminal conduct. This does not mean that bias crimes are being overcounted; rather it means that previously these crimes were undercounted.

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