AAUW Issues: Hate Crimes Prevention

The American Association of University Women advocates for freedom from violence and fear of violence in homes, schools, workplaces, and communities.

Violent crimes motivated solely or primarily by bias or hatred against a group to which the victim belongs intimidates all members of that group and gives the victim a reason to fear for not only their own safety but that of the entire group. These crimes are also more likely to provoke retaliation and incite community unrest. Hate crimes are a persistent threat, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In 2015, there were 5,818 reported bias-motivated incidents.

Additional Resources

Download Printable Quick Facts on Hate Crimes Prevention

Hate crimes are serious and well-documented problems but have historically been inadequately recognized and addressed. In 1968, Congress enacted a hate crimes prevention law that covered violent crimes motivated by a person’s race, color, national origin, or religion and occurred while the victim is engaged in a specified federally protected activity. For years, AAUW coordinated the efforts of women’s organizations to update that law, which culminated in the October 2009 passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) expanded hate crimes protection categories to also cover violent crimes motivated by gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability, in addition to providing local and state law enforcement with additional training and resources.

Strengthening Existing Federal Hate Crime Laws

AAUW believes the federal government has a role in preventing violence against people in all groups that have historically been subjected to bias-related violence. The HCPA expanded previous hate crimes law protections in three key ways.

Applying the law to additional bias-motivated incidents. The HCPA covers bias-motivated crime during interstate or foreign commerce. This change ensures additional bias-motivated incidents can be prosecuted under federal jurisdiction as necessary.

Covering gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability. For the first time in history, the new hate crimes prevention law authorized the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute individuals who commit violent crimes against others because of their gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability. Previous federal law did not permit federal involvement in these cases, though statistics show that the crimes are prevalent. For instance, reported hate crimes based on sexual orientation made up 18 percent of hate crimes in 2015.

Collecting statistics on gender-bias crime. The FBI had not previously tracked hate crimes motivated by gender, but 2009’s Hate Crimes Prevention Act corrected this problematic oversight. As of December 2014, we have access to this vital data.

Unfounded Concerns Regarding the HCPA

There are some fears about the HCPA, but they are unwarranted. The following are examples.

HCPA violates the First Amendment. The expanded hate crimes prevention law does not violate the right to free speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The hate crimes statute’s language does not apply to name-calling, verbal abuse, or expressions of hatred toward any group, even if the statements amount to hate speech. However, causing or attempting to cause bodily injury is clearly not speech protected by the First Amendment. The new hate crimes law was carefully drafted and modified to assure its constitutionality under U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

Violent crimes against women can all be tried as bias crimes. In addition, the new law does not make every violent crime against women a bias crime. Federal courts already routinely assess the question of gender motivation in the context of workplace discrimination claims and under other civil rights laws. Prosecutors and judges rely on the same type of analysis that pertains to the other protected groups—considering the language, nature, and severity of the attack, as well as motive, patterns of behavior, and common sense—to determine whether a violent crime was motivated by gender bias. To date, the HCPA has not been utilized to prosecute a gender-based, bias-motivated crime.

State hate crime laws are sufficient. Finally, federal jurisdiction provides an important complement to state jurisdiction to allow law enforcement authorities a broad range of options in pursuing justice in any particular case. In recent years federal hate crimes law has been used only in carefully selected cases. AAUW believes that while states should continue to play the primary role in the prosecution of hate crime violence, the federal government must be able to address cases that local authorities are either unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute. For instance, 20 states either do not have a hate crime law or have a law that does not cover bias-motivated crimes based on sexual orientation. In addition, only 15 states address hate crimes based on gender identity or expression.

Hate Crimes Prevention and Education

AAUW is hopeful that the HCPA will continue to act as a strong deterrent to prevent gender-bias-related crime. Sexual harassment, particularly in schools, can often act as a precursor to additional, bias-motivated crimes against women. AAUW’s report Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at Schoolshowed that nearly half of all 7–12th grade students said that they have encountered some form of sexual harassment. Appropriate and effective enforcement of the new law must include proactive prevention efforts aimed at the root causes of sexual harassment against girls and boys.

In addition, with increasing national attention on the epidemic of sexual violence at colleges and universities, AAUW encourages schools as well as law enforcement to consider how the new tools available to handle gender-based hate crimes under the HCPA can assist in dealing with serial offenders and other sex crimes.

Finally, schools are already involved in helping us understand the scope of the problem. The Higher Education Act requires colleges and universities to report bias-motivated incidents in their annual security reports to the Department of Education as part of the Clery Act. For several years, as federal laws were updated, the reporting required by colleges and universities did not match the reporting required of law enforcement. But, thanks to legislative updates in the Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008 and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act in 2013, data collection on the part of colleges and universities is now in line with that of law enforcement. Collecting this information gives parents and students a more accurate sense of campus safety and provides colleges with a better picture of their campus climate.