The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines a hate crime
as a “criminal 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.” In order to prove that a crime was in fact a hate crime, the prosecutor must show conclusive evidence
of a perpetrator’s prejudice or bias as a primary motivator for the offense. According to Benjamin Wagner
, former U.S. attorney for California’s Eastern District, prosecuting hate crimes is “notoriously difficult” as the prosecution needs “to prove not just the incident, but the state of mind of the defendant—that what they intended was hate-motivated.”
Currently the federal government, 45 states, and the District of Columbia have passed hate crime laws
In 1968 the federal government passed America’s first hate crimes law
with President Lyndon Johnson signing a bill that made it a crime to use, or threaten to use, force to willfully interfere with any person because of race, color, religion, or national origin, or because the person is participating in a federally protected activity, such as voting. More than a decade later in 1981, Washington and Oregon became the first two states
to pass laws protecting people from hate-related crimes. In 2009, Congress significantly expanded hate crime protections
to crimes based on gender, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation with the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Do hate crime laws work?
The stability in the rate of hate crimes
committed each year leaves many critics skeptical about their effectiveness. Michael Bronski
, hate crime law critic and Harvard professor, argues that increasing prison sentences for individuals who commit hate crimes only contributes to the country’s prison problem and does little to actually address the problems at hand. Michael Lieberman
, member of the Anti-Defamation League, disagrees, stating, “Why would you report that you were the victim of a hate crime unless you thought police were going to do something about it? “If [a city] pass[es] a strong hate crime law … it demonstrates that city is now taking these crimes very seriously.” Hate crime attorney Fred Lawrence also made this statement
following the 2013 Charleston, S.C. church shooting: “Nobody thinks [Charleston] was a garden-variety murder. Everybody understands what happened, and it’s a deeper tear in the fabric of the society because of what happened.”
Instances of anti-Semitism in particular have been on the rise in recent years
Even before the events at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh this past weekend, instances of anti-Semitic behavior have been increasing across America. Jews account for less than 2%
of the American population, yet, according to the FBI’s 2016 Hate Crime Statistics Report, anti-Semitic motivations accounted for more than 50%
of hate crimes with religious bias and CNN reports
that anti-Semitic incidents have increased by almost 60% in 2017 alone. While these numbers are alarming as is, they may actually be understated because hate crimes are not reported at the federal level, but rather at the state level. Instances of anti-Semitic vandalism have been seen in response to political affiliations, as was seen in New Jersey
when a campaign sign for U.S. Rep Josh Gottheimer was defaced with anti-Semitic remarks and images just a month ago.
The shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history