Coding Hate Crimes

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

Coding Hate Crimes

Katherine Coate

In October of 2019 the variable “Hate Crimes” was added to the process of coding cases and the codebook. The values for this variable are simply “yes” or “no”, but understanding exactly what a hate crime is and how it is defined can be confusing. This is my first semester working as a coder for the Prosecution Project and understanding how to code hate crimes was one of the variables I had to study to truly understand. The best place to start for understanding is looking into how the government defines hate crimes. The first federal hate crime law was passed in 1968 and was signed by President Lyndon Johnson.

“The 1968 statute 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 and because the person is participating  in a federally protected activity, such as public education, employment, jury service, travel, or the enjoyment of public accommodations, or helping another person to do so. In 1968, Congress also made it a crime to use, or threaten to use, force to interfere with housing rights because of the victim’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; in 1988, protections on the basis of familial status and disability were added.”

Hate crimes can simply be added as enhancements on federal cases and those are easy to code because the charges include the words hate crime. For example, Holden Matthews set fire to three historically black churches and was charged with three counts of a hate crime. However this is not what every hate crime case looks like.

There are specific charges that count as hate crimes but do not specifically say hate crime in the charges. These are Criminal Interference with Right to Fair Housing, Violent Interference with Federally Protected Rights, Conspiracy Against Rights and Damage to Religious Property as part of the Church Arson Prevention Act.

For example Graham Williamson was charged with one count of interference with housing rights which would be a hate crime. Williamson, along with a co-conspirator, built and burned a wooden cross near the home of a juvenile victim, M.H., who lived in a predominantly African-American residential area of Seminary. He burned the cross to threaten, frighten, and intimidate M.H. and other African-American residents because of their race and color, and because they lived in and occupied residences in that area of Seminary. These cases are a little less straightforward because you have to know what charges count as hate crimes but as long as you have that list available and remember to check it they are easy to code for.

When I was researching hate crimes for this I learned about how much hate crimes vary from state to state and the federal hate crimes laws do not standardize these. There are 5 states currently that do not have hate crime laws and only 28 that include gender bias in their definition (Shanmugasundaram). Federal hate crime laws have expanded pretty consistently and state laws have not. It is frustrating to code cases that seem like they should be hate crimes but can’t be because the states law are behind national laws. It is also hard to prosecute federal cases because there are requirements that the state has to follow. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center:

“The Shepard-Byrd Act allows the federal government to prosecute hate crimes whenever local or state prosecutors choose not to. However, before the DOJ may prosecute a hate crime, several criteria must be met. The U.S. attorney general must assert that either the state does not have jurisdiction, that the state asks the federal government to assume jurisdiction, that a verdict or sentence obtained under state charges insufficiently eradicates bias-motivated violence, or that it is in the public interest of the United States to prosecute.”

Cases such as Joshua John Leff are not hate crimes, even though he threatened to kill minorities with a weapon and tried to state a race war, because it is a state case and the state laws are not as broad. This is surprising to me because normally state legislation is ahead of national legislation. Hate crime laws are incredibly varied and can be frustrating to code because the legislation is not straightforward. However, progress is being made and hopefully it will continue to increase so that hate crimes are nationally defined in a consistent manner.

Works Cited:

The United States Department of Justice. “Hate Crime Laws,” March 7, 2019.

Shanmugasundaram, Swathi. “Hate Crimes, Explained.” Southern Poverty Law Center, April 15, 2018.

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