Here’s where we unpack what actions are hate crimes, what you should know about hate speech, and how hate crime victims can find support and compensation.
Close to 9,000 officially designated “hate crimes” are reported to police each year. ¹
The FBI defines “hate crime” as a:
“[C]riminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”
Murder, arson, assault, and vandalism are some of the criminal offenses committed based on or aggravated by bias.
However, most hate crimes are never reported to police. Government crime surveys reveal an average of nearly 23,000 hate crimes are committed every year. Two out of three victims surveyed perceived their victimization to be racially motivated. ²
Federal and State Hate Crime Laws
Civil Rights Act of 1968
Also known as the Fair Housing Act, this ground-breaking federal law was enacted to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin on public transportation, in public places like lunchrooms, libraries, and movie theaters, and any other place that serves the public.
Importantly, the law also prohibited interference with an individual’s right to vote, attend school, and obtain housing.
Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (1994)
An act of Congress signed into law in 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act expanded government authority over many violent crimes. It defined statutory crimes definitions for hate crimes, sex crimes, gang crimes and more.
Church Arson Prevention Act (1996)
This act makes it a federal crime to damage religious property or to interfere in any person’s freedom to worship. The act also imposes a 20-year prison sentence on anyone convicted of “defacing or destroying any religious real property because of race, color, or ethnic characteristics…”
Campus Hate Crimes Right to Know Act of 1997
Requires any college that accepts federal funding to notify federal authorities of “… crimes involving bodily injury to any person, in which the victim is intentionally selected because of the actual or perceived race, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, or disability of the victim that are reported to campus security authorities or local police agencies.”
Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009)
Drafted in response to the violent murders of Mathew Shepard in Wyoming and James Byrd, Jr. in Texas, the act was signed into law in 2009 as a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010.
The act expands the definition of hate crimes to include violent acts motivated by “a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability…”
State Hate Crime Laws
All but five states in the United States have enacted laws that criminalize at least some forms of bias-based violence against people or property. Most states have stiff penalties for hate crimes based on race, ethnicity, or religion. Other classifications of hate crimes vary from one state to the next.
States with no hate crime statutes:
- South Carolina
Find your location on this chart of State-By-State Hate Crime Laws.
Hate Crime Statistics and Examples
Based on the United States Department of Justice statistics gathered by the FBI, the most common categories of bias leading to hate crime are:
- Race/Ethnicity/Ancestry 58.1%
- Religion 22%
- Sexual Orientation 15.9%
- Gender Identity 11.7%
- Disability 1.6%
- Gender 0.6%
Case Summary: Racial Hate Crime Shootings After Katrina
On February 13, 2019, Roland J. Bourgeois Jr. was sentenced to 10 years in prison followed by five years of supervised release for shooting at three African-American men in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Case documents show that shortly after the hurricane, Bourgeois and several of his white neighbors agreed to use force to keep African-Americans out of their community. They blocked the street with fallen trees and began armed patrols of the neighborhood.
On September 1, 2005, three young black men climbed over one of the barricades while trying to get to a designated evacuation point at the ferry landing. Bourgeois opened fire with a shotgun, injuring each of the three men.
Testimony reveals that Bourgeois was delighted that he “got one” and pledged to “kill that [racial slur]” if the man lived. Bourgeois told one of his neighbors: “Anything coming up this street darker than a brown paper bag is getting shot.”
The FBI conducted the investigation, and the case was prosecuted as a federal hate crime.
Case Summary: Religious Hate Crimes Resulting in Death
On February 29, 2019, a federal grand jury charged Robert Bowers with additional federal hate crime violations in addition to the Superseding Indictment of 44 counts in connection with the October 27, 2018 shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The added counts include 13 violations of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, as well as corresponding counts for discharging a firearm during those crimes of violence.
The indictment alleges Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue armed with multiple firearms and opened fire while making statements of his desire to “kill all Jews.”
The shooting victims included 11 worshipers who were killed, two worshipers who were critically injured, and five police officers who were wounded trying to help victims and apprehend Bowers.
Bowers faces a maximum possible penalty of life without parole, followed by a consecutive sentence of 250 years’ imprisonment.
Additionally, 22 charges against Bowers are capital offenses, meaning if the Attorney General of the United States determines capital punishment is justified in this case, Bowers may face the death penalty.
Case Summary: Hate Crime Spree Based on Sexual Orientation
Following a plea deal on February 27, 2018, Chancler Encalade was sentenced to ten years in federal prison for assaulting a man because of the victim’s sexual orientation.
Anthony Shelton was previously sentenced to 20 years in prison, and Nigel Garrett and Cameron Ajiduah were each sentenced to 15 years in prison for the same crimes.
Encalade, Shelton, Ajiduah, and Garrett used a social media dating site for gay men to arrange to meet the intended victim at the victim’s home.
Upon arrival at the victim’s home, the men bound the victim with tape, physically assaulted the victim, and made abusive statements to the victim for being gay. The men displayed a gun during the assault, and stole the victim’s property, including his vehicle.
The Superseding Indictment also charged the four men with conspiring to cause bodily injury because of the victims’ sexual orientation during four other home invasions in Plano, Frisco, and Aubrey, Texas, from Jan. 17 to Feb. 7, 2017.
Hate Speech vs. Free Speech
There are numerous federal and state laws with enhanced punishments for hate crimes. However, there are no laws prohibiting “hate speech” in the United States.
Americans value their liberties, including their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression. There are a few very limited exceptions to a person’s freedom of speech.
Exceptions to a person’s freedom of speech include:
- “Fighting words” intended to provoke an immediate violent response
- Language inciting or producing imminent lawless action
- False claims about commercial products (like fake medical treatments)
A hate crime occurs when a person engages in behavior that is already illegal, like assault and battery, and they are motivated to commit the crime because of their bias against the victim’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.
If the attacker is screaming racial slurs while they beat the victim, their speech is evidence of their motivation for the crime, but screaming racial slurs is not illegal.
Case Summary: Hate Speech Ordinance is Unconstitutional
R.A.V was accused of burning a cross on a black family’s lawn in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was charged under the city’s Bias Motivated Crime Ordinance, which prohibits the display of a symbol which one knows or has reason to know “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.”
The trial court dismissed the charge, deciding the ordinance was “substantially overbroad and impermissibly content based.” In other words, that the city can’t legally have an ordinance that punishes someone’s expression just because their message is biased.
The state supreme court overturned that decision, ruling that the ordinance was legal, “because it was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest in protecting the community against bias motivated threats to public safety and order.”
The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, where it ruled the city’s Bias Motivated Crime Ordinance is invalid under the First Amendment.
The court reasoned:
“[T]he ordinance is unconstitutional because it imposes special prohibitions on those speakers [like R.A.V.] who express views on the disfavored subjects of “race, color, creed, religion or gender.” At the same time, it permits displays containing abusive invectives if they are not addressed to those topics …
St. Paul’s desire to communicate to minority groups that it does not condone the “group hatred” of bias motivated speech does not justify selectively silencing speech on the basis of its content…”
Hate Crime Victim Compensation
Violent crimes that violate United States statues are “federal crimes.”
When the victim is targeted because of their race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity, the perpetrator can also be charged with hate crimes.
Federal crimes that may also be hate crimes include:
- Aggravated Assault/Battery
- Armed Robbery
- Attempted Murder
- Assault with a Deadly Weapon
- First Degree Murder
- Sexual Abuse
The Crime Victim Rights Act
The Crime Victim Rights Act of 2004 is a bill of rights for anyone harmed by a federal crime. The act paves the way for hate crime victims to have a voice in the criminal prosecution of their attacker and to demand financial restitution from the criminal.
Crime victim’s rights include:
- The right to dignified and respectful treatment by prosecutors and law enforcement
- The right to reasonable protection from the person or persons accused of the crime
- The right to notification of court proceedings and parole hearings
- The right to speak at court when the accused is entering a plea or receiving a sentence
- The right to speak at court hearings when probation is under consideration
- The right to speak at parole hearings dealing with the convict’s early release from prison
- The right to speak with the prosecutor about issues related to your case
- The right to restitution from the criminal
State Services for Crime Victims
Every U.S. state and territory has programs and services available for violent crime victims and their families.
Use this map provided by the Office for Victims of Crime to locate Crime Victims’ Services in your area.
Crime Victim Compensation Programs
Individuals convicted of violent hate crimes in lower courts often have an order of “restitution” included in their sentence, meaning they are legally obligated to pay for the victim’s damages. Typically, restitution orders allow the criminal to pay small amounts over time.
When a violent attacker is convicted of federal hate crimes, they can be sentenced to federal prison for many years, and rightfully so.
However, they won’t have the means to pay restitution toward the crime victim’s damages.
Damages from violent hate crimes may include:
- Medical treatment costs
- Mental health treatment costs
- Out-of-pocket expenses related to treatment
- Lost wages
State-level crime victim compensation programs help by paying the costs of medical care, mental health treatment, and lost wages for victims of violent crimes.
State compensation programs also help families of murder victims pay for funerals and other expenses.
Most crime victim compensation for medical expenses covers costs not paid by the victim’s health insurance or Medicaid. Financial compensation is not typically available for emotional distress caused by the hate crime.
Every state has different types of benefits, compensation limits, and deadlines to apply for aid.
Find your State Crime Victim Compensation Program for contact information, application deadlines, and compensation benefit details.
Hate Crime Victim Resources
FBI Victims Resources Division: Ensures that victims of crimes investigated by the FBI receive the services and notification as required by federal law and the Attorney General Guidelines on Victim and Witness Assistance.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: Referral Service to report hate crimes and discrimination complaints.
Anti-Defamation League: ADL is a leading anti-hate organization. Founded in response to an escalating climate of anti-Semitism and bigotry, its mission is to protect the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.
Muslim Advocates: Helps Muslim crime victims identify and report religious hate crimes in each state.
The National Center for Victims of Crime has resources available to assist victims of crime. The National Help Line, VictimConnect, provides help for victims of any crime nationwide, and can be reached by phone at 1–855-4VICTIM (1-855-484-2846)
LGBT National Help Center: Provides free and confidential support and local resources to gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered people.
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