A Contemporary Review of Hate Crime Legislation in the United States

AuthorMatthew A. Bills,Michael S. Vaughn
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2023, Vol. 34(2) 115 –139
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034221112847
A Contemporary Review of
Hate Crime Legislation in the
United States
Matthew A. Bills1 and Michael S. Vaughn1
Hate-motivated crime remains problematic in the United States. California passed the
first hate crime law in 1978; Congress followed in 1990. States continue to amend
their hate crime legislation, producing an amalgam of statutory provisions. This article
creates a conceptual framework from which to classify hate crime legislation across
the 50 states and Washington, DC. Laws were identified through Westlaw. Analyses
compared the types of crimes covered, discrete and insular minorities protected,
prosecutorial alternatives, mandates for law enforcement agencies, and additional
rights provided to victims among states’ legislation. Considerable variation in scope
and content of hate crime legislation exists among states, leaving several vulnerable
groups unprotected, law enforcement underprepared, and victim rights and resources
sparse. Future directions for hate crime policy and legislation are discussed.
hate crime, hate crime policy, hate crime law, hate crime victims
Hate crimes have existed throughout American history; however, the terminology hate
crime is more contemporary, starting in the 1970s with lawmakers and advocacy
groups calling attention to perceptions of what was at the time an outbreak of crimes
motivated by bias toward certain groups (Cogan, 2002; Grattet et al., 1998; Grattet &
Jenness, 2001; Jenness, 2007). Advocacy efforts targeting hate crime can attribute
their origination and sustainment to other social movements that began advocating for
1Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Matthew A. Bills, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Sam Houston State University 816
17th Street, Huntsville, TX 77341, USA.
Email: mab010@shsu.edu
1112847CJPXXX10.1177/08874034221112847Criminal Justice Policy ReviewBills and Vaughn
116 Criminal Justice Policy Review 34(2)
marginalized individuals decades ago. The civil rights movement, women’s rights
movements, and activism for sexual minorities and persons with disabilities have all
pushed for more attention to hate crimes and those affected by them (Grattet & Jenness,
2001; Jenness, 1999; Sheehan et al., 2021). Although these movements have divergent
groups for which they advocate, they unite in their fight against hate (Cogan, 2002;
Grattet & Jenness, 2001; Jenness, 2007; Jenness & Grattet, 1996). More recent advo-
cacy efforts, such as those for sexual minorities, transgender individuals, and individu-
als with disabilities (Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners, 2019; Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc.,
2018; Zarda v. Altitude Express Inc., 2019), are still establishing the presence of those
groups in hate crime legislation.
Currently, discussion of hate crimes occurs across the United States in news stories,
public discourse, among academics, and within the criminal legal system, in part due
to the efforts and dedication of resources from advocacy groups. Major events, such as
the 2016 Pulse Night Club shooting in Orlando, Florida, and the 2019 shooting in El
Paso, Texas, have brought even more attention to hate-motivated crime nationwide,
leading to further calls for improved policy and law. States and the federal government
alike have enacted legislation to address hate crime, from denoting protected groups to
criminalizing certain acts. The content of this legislation differs significantly, which
the current study will review in greater detail.
This variation can be partially attributed to differences in how hate crime is defined,
as there is no universally agreed-upon empirical definition for hate crime (Chakraborti,
2018; Vergani & Navarro, 2021). This status persists today, but collectively, hate
crimes are generally defined as criminal acts committed against people, property, and/
or organizations because of the group they identify with/belong to or are perceived to
belong to (e.g., Black, Jewish, Muslim, sexual minority; Chakraborti & Garland, 2012;
Cogan, 2002; Hall, 2013; Uhrich, 1999). The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI,
n.d.) currently defines hate crimes as “a committed criminal offense which is moti-
vated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias(es) against a race, religion, disability,
sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Due to the U.S. criminal legal
system’s decentralized nature, states have their own definitions and guidelines for hate
crimes, which do not always align with the FBI definition. Indeed, there is consider-
able variation in protected classes and punishable offenses, depending on where one is
in the country.
The combination of the prevalence of hate crime in the United States (FBI, n.d.;
Kena & Thompson, 2021), inconsistent reporting (Lantz et al., 2019; Lockwood et al.,
2022), and variation between states in what is covered by hate crime laws all point to
the importance of studying hate crime legislation. States across the country have con-
sistently changed aspects of their hate crime legislation, including recent substantial
changes by Utah in 2019 and Georgia in 2020, making it difficult to follow for those
not proximally involved with their amendment and enforcement. Even for those who
are more closely associated, such as criminal justice actors, the fluid nature of hate
crime legislation and related agency policies, and lack of quality, related information
and training may create confusion on how they should handle hate-motivated incidents

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