The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines a hate crime or bias crime as a “criminal offense committed against a property or society motivated in whole or part by the offender’s bias against a religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity/national origin.” Typical hate crime laws make illegal the use of force or the threat of force against a person because of their affiliation with a specific group.
Studies show that ordinary crimes are typically committed by people with whom the victims are familiar; hate crimes, on the contrary, are often committed by strangers who simply perceive another as belonging to a particular group. Statistics also show that most perpetrators of hate crimes are under the age of 20.
In 1990, the federal government enacted the Hate Crime Statistics Act, requiring the Justice Department to collect data on hate crimes from state and local law enforcement agencies. The most recent FBI hate crime statistics show the number of hate crimes more than doubling in the decade between 1991 and 2001, but then declining in 2002. In 1991, 4,558 hate crimes were reported. That number rose to 9,730 in 2001, and dropped back down to 7,462 in 2002, indicating a 23 percent decrease.
While public awareness and participation from an increasing number of states and organizations are key factors in the increase in reports, the difference is significant enough for law groups to take notice. Organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has been fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry since 1913, have diligently pursued hate crime legislation in an effort to prevent future hate crimes and punish hate crime offenders.
According to these 2002 statistics, the majority of hate crimes – roughly 49 percent – were associated with racial bias, followed by religion bias (19.1 percent), sexual orientation bias (16.7 percent), ethnicity bias (14.8 percent), and disability bias (0.6 percent). The highest frequency of racial bias was anti-black, accounting for 2,486 incidents – one-third of all hate crimes.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, anti-Islamic bias crimes reached a height of 481 incidents. The 2002 statistics show a 67.8 percent decline in anti-Islamic hate crimes to 155 incidents.
Experts estimate that a large number of hate crimes are committed against gays and lesbians, yet many go unreported, due to the victim’s shame or lack of public recognition of his or her sexual orientation. As of late 2001, the ADL reports that of the 44 states that have hate crime laws, 20 do not include hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation.