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Communities Under Assault: Improving Federal Hate Crimes Enforcement

An overview of the strengths and weaknesses of current hate crime legislation, and our recommendations for improvement

August 27, 2018


Hate crimes have been on the rise in the U.S. During the winter of 2016-2017, over 1,370 hate crime and bias incidents were reported. The Muslim community in the U.S. has suffered the greatest increase in reported hate crimes. Our goal is to encourage renewed conversation on how to address the shortcomings in federal hate crimes laws to better protect minority and marginalized communities throughout this country.

Communities Under Assault: an MPAC white paper on the strengths and weaknesses of current hate crime legislation

The Facts

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) statistics on total hate crimes in the U.S. in 2016 shows a near 200% increase in hate crime incidents toward Muslims since September 11, 2001.

Further, the number of anti-Muslim hate groups nearly tripled – from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016 – fueling a 67% increase in hate crimes since 2015 alone. Negative rhetoric from politicians and other public figures further drive hate and bias-related attacks on Muslim communities. Despite the increase in reported hate crimes in the U.S., the number of federal and state hate crime prosecutions remains low. Between January 2010 and August 2015, federal prosecutors filed hate crime charges for only 13% of reported hate crimes, and of those, only 11% led to a conviction. On a state level, a 2013 study found that only 4% of reported violent hate crimes led to an arrest.

The Challenges

The staggering dearth of hate crime arrests and prosecutions reflects a larger challenge in fully vindicating the rights of victims. Despite hate crimes laws sending a message that as a society, the U.S. does not tolerate hate-motivated attacks, the lack of both federal and state hate crime enforcement sends the wrong message to perpetrators. While federal hate crime prosecutions often garner the most media attention, hate crime enforcement most frequently falls to state and local prosecutors. Today, most states prosecute hate crimes under their own laws – some more diligently than others. Despite the fact that federal prosecutors often defer to states to prosecute hate crimes, five states either do not have hate crime laws, or their laws lack meaningful hate crime provisions.

Furthermore, in many parts of the country, local prosecutors are ill-equipped to bring hate crime charges, while federal prosecutors seldom elect to bring hate crime charges against defendants, leaving victims with their rights not fully vindicated.

How to Improve Matters

In order to analyze and understand the efficacy of existing legislation and the interplay between state and federal hate crimes laws, accurate data is necessary. There are serious deficiencies in reporting hate crimes, both by victims and government officials.

This white paper offers an overview of existing federal hate crime laws to provide a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses in the federal U.S. criminal justice system with regard to addressing hate crimes. We also offer recommendations on how to improve the overall hate crimes legislative landscape. 

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