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Hate Crime Laws Across the U.S. Lack Uniformity in Addressing Violence, Civil Rights Report Says

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  • Hate crime laws in the U.S. are inconsistent and limited in addressing bias-motivated violence, according to a report released by civil rights advocates in the wake of a rise in anti-Asian hate during the pandemic.
  • While the laws intend to protect these vulnerable communities, the report says they are less effective in doing so due to bias in the criminal justice system. 
  • Forty-six states as well as DC, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have their own hate crime laws, but they all vary greatly.

Hate crime laws in the U.S. are inconsistent and limited in addressing bias-motivated violence, according to a report released by civil rights advocates in the wake of a rise in anti-Asian hate during the pandemic.

The report, released Wednesday by the Movement Advancement Project, conducts a nationwide review of hate crime laws to reveal their variances and flaws in responding to crimes based on biases against racial minorities, LGBTQ+ and disabled individuals, among others. 

While the laws intend to protect these vulnerable communities, the report says they are less effective in doing so due to bias in the criminal justice system. 

"We need to improve our hate crime laws and engage in broader solutions to reducing hate in our country. Like any law, hate crime laws alone won't fix a problem as large as rising hate violence," Ineke Mushovic, executive director of Movement Advancement Project, said in a statement accompanying the report.

The discussion about hate crimes gained new momentum following a reported surge of anti-Asian and anti-Semitic violence over the past year. In particular, the report highlighted the uptick in racially-motivated crimes targeting Asian American and Pacific Islanders, or AAPI, during the pandemic. 

The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported a 150% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes from 2019 to 2020, based on police statistics from the country's 16 largest cities, the report noted. 

While racism towards AAPI is nothing new in the U.S., the report alleged that former President Donald Trump's inflammatory rhetoric about the coronavirus helped fuel the increase. 

The report also cited the spa shootings in Atlanta, Georgia earlier this year where a man killed eight people, most of whom were women of Asian descent. The man pleaded guilty to four of the murders on Tuesday, and received a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. 

Despite Georgia enacting a hate law just a year before the shootings, a prosecutor on the case has not linked a hate motivation to the murders. 

Signs against violence against Asians are posted in front of a store in Chinatown on March 18, 2021 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images
Signs against violence against Asians are posted in front of a store in Chinatown on March 18, 2021 in San Francisco, California.

Forty-six states as well as DC, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have their own hate crime laws, according to the report. But they all vary greatly, which leads to "a complex—and inconsistent—patchwork of policies and protections across the country," the report said. 

For example, most of the laws cover race, ethnicity and religion, but there is "considerable variation" when it comes to hate crimes based on disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and age, according to the report. This demonstrates the lack of uniformity in protections offered to some vulnerable communities. 

The report also noted inconsistencies in hate crime data collection and reporting across states, with only half of them requiring law enforcement agencies to report hate crime data to the FBI. Recording this data is crucial to evaluating the effectiveness of hate crime laws, the report added. 

Available data from the FBI reported a ten-year high in hate crimes in 2019, most of which are motivated by racial or ethnic bias.

Other data also indicates that the majority of hate crimes in the U.S. are committed by white people, according to the report. However, the report noted that hate crimes reported by state law enforcement to the FBI disproportionately identify Black people as hate crime offenders. 

13 states' law enforcement records listed Black offenders at a rate nearly 1.6 to 3.6 times the size of the state's Black population, according to the report. 

This demonstrates the widespread bias in the criminal justice system, which, according to the report, often discourages vulnerable communities from reporting their hate crime experiences to law enforcement. 

In addition to examining hate crime laws, the report outlines ways that they can be improved. 

Many of the laws share a core element of using criminal punishment for when they're violated, but the report says there is "little evidence" that such enhancements deter hate crimes. Instead, the report calls for non-carceral approaches focused on rehabilitation and healing. 

The Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act was cited as an example of improved hate crime legislation.

The federal legislation was signed into law by President Joe Biden in May, and directs the Department of Justice to streamline the review of hate crimes related to the pandemic. It also gives local law enforcement more resources to track such crimes, and provides guidance on how to reduce discriminatory language related to the virus.

The report also advocates for expanding protections for communities impacted by hate crimes and improving law enforcement accountability and training. 

"Today, we are at a turning point. Although we know that hate crime laws are important and have been successful in holding offenders accountable, we also know that they can and should be more impactful," wrote Judy Shepard, president of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, in the foreword of the report.

Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten and left to die, became an inspiration for a 2009 federal hate crimes law.

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