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Race and Ethnicity

Hate Crimes

Hate crime is a crime committed against a person simply because he or she represents a certain group or lifestyle different from the offender. Most commonly hate crimes focus on race and ethnicity, but also can include religion, sexual orientation, gender, and age. In 2002 almost 49 percent of hate crimes were based on race and another 15 percent based on ethnicity or national origin. Some 67 percent of victims attacked based on race were black Americans.

The term "hate crime" came into use in the mid-1980s in the media and by politicians. The term quickly caught on in the criminal justice systems. In 1990 the FBI began gathering hate crime data, which is probably much lower than the actual number of hate crimes that have occurred. Many jurisdictions, however, did not provide statistics to the FBI until the 1990s progressed. Other factors affecting statistics include under reportage of crimes due to victims who fear retaliation and distrust law enforcement.

"Three Strikes" Laws

Following a rise in crime rates through the 1980s and early 1990s twenty-four states and the federal government passed legislation known as "three-strikes" laws between 1993 and 1995. The purpose was to get tough on repeat or habitual offenders. Lengthy prison sentences were required on the third felony conviction of an offender. One major effect of the laws was a substantial increase in the incarceration of minorities.

California was one of the first states to pass a three-strikes law. Some 26,000 offenders were incarcerated under the law in its first three years. Black Americans comprised 43 percent of those incarcerated even though they represented only 20 percent of felony arrests and only 7 percent of the state's population. The incarceration rate was thirteen times higher than for whites. In Georgia 98 percent of offenders serving life sentences under their law were black. National studies showed that prosecutors were 50 percent more likely to file charges under the three-strikes laws for black offenders than for white.

Hate crimes involve criminal behavior already prohibited by law, such as assault, murder, and vandalism. Hate crimes can also be against property, such as destruction or vandalism. By the early twenty-first century, over forty states had Cross-burning ceremony involving the organized hate group Ku Klux Klan. (AP/Wide World Photos)

passed some form of hate crime legislation. Some states make hate crimes separate from other crimes, while other states passed hate crime bills that influence only the penalty phase of cases.

Hate crimes can be vicious and brutal since the crime comes from intense anger or rage. Victims of hate crimes are three times more likely to need hospital treatment. Many consider hate crimes as a form of domestic terrorism since they are commonly intended to send a message to a larger social group for whom the offender has deep hostilities. They are usually unprovoked by the victim and often appear random.

Hate crime victims are usually selected because of who they are, not something they have done. Attacks are generally based on personal characteristics of which victims have no control, such as skin color or gender. Studies show such crimes lead to tremendous emotional distress for the victims, as well as their communities and society as a whole.

The causes of hate crime can vary. Sometimes the offender suffers from severe mental illness. Other times, hate crimes are "thrill" crimes for youthful offenders, perhaps to gain acceptance among peers or as a gang initiation, or for revenge or retaliation. Organized hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nation engaged in hate crimes for years. In the 1990s white supremacist groups had an estimated membership of 50,000, and had developed a strong presence in prisons.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawRace and Ethnicity - Race In U.s. Legal History, Native Americans, Black Americans And Crime, Policing And Minorities