49 states and territories have hate crime laws -- but they vary
Updated 3:53 PM ET, Wed March 17, 2021
(CNN)Hate crimes, defined by the United States Department of Justice, are crimes motivated by bias.
The Justice Department clarifies that "hate" doesn't mean anger or dislike -- but rather bias against people with specific characteristics like race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion or disability.
The "crime" part is often violent, like an assault or murder. Property damage, threats to commit the crime, or even conspiring to commit the crime also qualify.
Some states collect data, but many don't
Forty-nine states and territories have hate crime laws -- but they vary.
Data collection is a big divider among states with hate crime laws.
Currently, 18 out of the 49 states and territories that have laws in place do not require data collection on such crimes, according to the Justice Department.
Without state data collection, not only does national data on hate crimes remain incomplete, but vulnerable communities are less likely to receive support.
Data collection helps states understand which crimes are occurring against whom, so that they can allocate resources to communities that are most targeted.
Because some states require data collection and others don't, similar hate crimes across states can produce unequal and misinformed protections for vulnerable communities, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan organization that conducts research on legal and policy issues.
"There are wide disparities in the protections provided by the various state hate crimes laws, resulting in unequal protection from similar violent crimes in different jurisdictions and the frustration of efforts to collect and maintain accurate national data regarding these attacks," the Brennan Center for Justice states on its website.
Different states use different definitions
Other discrepancies exist, too.
Jurisdictions can define hate crimes by different bias motivations.
Take Indiana's Senate Bill 198 -- opponents, like the ACLU, consider it controversial, due to its vagueness and omission of gender identity protections.
"The most recent bias crimes bill is unconstitutionally vague and will undoubtedly lead to legal battles," Katie Blair, public policy and advocacy director with the ACLU of Indiana, said in a March 2019 statement. "SB 198 contains a broad and vague definition of attributes...The ACLU of Indiana will not stand for a bias crimes law that does not explicitly list gender identity as a protected class."
North Dakota's statute on discrimination in public places is also debatable.
While the US Department of Justice and other organizations consider it a hate crime law, Brennan Center research suggests that lawmakers and law enforcement within the state do not consider or apply it as such.
"Lawmakers and law enforcement within North Dakota do not believe they have a hate crimes law," according to the Brennan Center, "and that no one has ever been charged of a hate crime under 12.1-14-04."
Georgia is the most recent state to pass a hate crime bill after Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was killed while jogging last year. The law allows judges imposing sentences to increase punishment against those who target victims based on perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability.
Some states don't have any laws whatsoever
Now, three states -- Wyoming, Arkansas and South Carolina -- remain without hate crime laws.
American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands and the US Virgin Islands also do not have hate crimes laws, according to the Justice Department.
One of the only federal hate crime laws is named after the victim of a Wyoming murder. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed in 2009 after Shepard, a gay student in Wyoming, and Byrd, a Black father of three in Texas, were murdered in 1998. The act expanded the federal definition of hate crimes to include gender, disability, gender identity and sexual orientation.
But Wyoming has not passed its own legislation. Earlier this month, the Wyoming House Judiciary Committee voted to table what would have been the state's first hate crime law, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.
The Justice Department says on its website that "even if a state or territory does not have a hate crimes law, hate crimes can still be reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation."
The right labeling matters
Hate crimes can be conflated with hate or bias incidents, or even terrorism.
But there are qualities that officials look for to distinguish them.
Motive is the biggest quality in question. If it can be proven that bias factored into the motive to commit the crime, it's likely to be deemed a hate crime.
But what about terrorism, which can involve both bias and violence?
According to Cornell's Legal Information institute, when determining if something is an act of domestic terrorism, the act has to have three characteristics:
- It took place in the United States.
- It was dangerous to human life
- It was intended to intimidate civilians or affect government policy by "mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping."
Using the right language matters, legally speaking.
To label something a hate crime is, in many states, to add weight to sentencing.
Label or not, victims and their families always suffer from these tragic, violent acts.
And depending on where they live, they may suffer more than they have to.