Hate crime, loosely defined, is a crime committed because the criminal hated the victim because of the gender, race, or sexual orientation of the victim. It is a significant political issue within the United States.
Recent U.S. legislation has redefined a number of crimes and circumstances to carry harsher penalties depending on the motivation of the convict.
Some opposed to hate crime legislation argue that such legislation punishes expression, infringing the "free speech" protections of the First Amendment. If assault carries a 5 year sentence, but a hate-crime assault carries a 10 year sentence, then is the extra 5 years a penalty for hating?
Conversely, proponents have held that hatred causing violence is a social problem of sufficient scope and persistence to require special measures by legislators and law enforcement to secure the safety of "hated" groups. Supporters reason that one who can be moved to violence by hatred of a class of people presents greater danger to society than one who merely hates an individual for cause. They posit that if normal punishments are inadequate deterrents, then additional punishments may deter crimes mitvated by hate.
In English law, the basis of the United States' law, the state of a person's mind has always been important in determining the fact or seriousness of a crime. "Mens rea" (guilty mind) is required to convict most felonies. If one plotted a murder, one should be found guilty in the first degree. If another acted in passion, without forethought, it should be classified as second-degree or simple murder, with a reduced penalty. If the act resulting in death were merely careless or inattentive, negligent homicide or manslaughter should be the finding. Similarly with drugs; unlawful possession causes one level of crime. Possession with intent to sell is more serious.
Hate crime legislation takes this a step further, adding extra punishment for hate based on personal prejudice.
Hate crimes are not committed against just one group of people. Hate crimes have been prosecuted against all races, genders and sexual orientations.
It can be difficult to distinguish a hate crime from other crimes.
Usually, a hate crime is detected by a background investigation of the accused person or eyewitness reports of the crime. In some cases, circumstantial evidence shows the intent of the accused. For example, handwritten journals might describe the hatred and contain plans for crimes to be committed against the hated group. In other cases, classification of a hate crime is by the judgment of the law enforcement personnel and prosecuting attorney.
It can be much harder convict a "hate crime" than a normal crime. This may affect whether the prosecuting attorney pursues prosecution under the 'hate crime' statute.
Newsmedia may abuse the term "hate crime" to increase sales. This can prejudice law enforcement or court proceedings, as well as being inaccurate.
A generic example of a hate crime would be a criminal that steals money only from females because the criminal hates females.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has initiated private proecutions on behalf of some past and future victims of hate crimes.