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social sciences

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Hate Crimes  
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The Hate Crimes Statistics Act took effect in 1990, having been signed into law by President George Bush at a public ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House, the first ceremony there officially to include members of the gay and lesbian community.

This law asks local law enforcement officials, on a voluntary basis, to gather and maintain statistics on the incidence of hate crimes, including those motivated by bias on the basis of sexual orientation, so as to ascertain the extent of the problem and whether to legislate further hate crimes laws. In 2001 there were 9,730 hate crimes reported by the F. B. I. in its Uniform Crime Report, about 14% of which were based on sexual orientation.

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The Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act took effect in 1994, and provides for perhaps the most controversial aspect of any hate crimes legislation, an enhanced penalty for convicted perpetrators of hate crimes, but it did not cover sexual orientation, gender, or disability as categories to be protected.

In 2000, a bill introduced into the Senate as the Hate Crimes Prevention Act was revised and renamed the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act by the House of Representatives. This bill, had it been passed, would have added sexual orientation, gender, and disability to the categories, and have brought some uniformity to the nation's hate crimes laws.

The bill would have also mandated federal prosecution should the hate crime have been violent and not prosecuted at the local level, or occurred on federal lands, or hindered a person in the exercise of a civil right.

Although the bill was not adopted in 2000, it was introduced in subsequent Congresses and, indeed, managed to pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2008 as an amendment to a Defense Appropriation bill. However, with the threat of a veto by President George W. Bush, the amendment was dropped from the Defense bill before final passage.

In 2009, however, after the election of President Barack Obama and a large Democratic majority in both Houses of Congress, the Matthew Shepard and James W. Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act--named for a college student brutally murdered because of his sexuality and for a young Black man viciously murdered because of his race--easily passed Congress, again as an amendment to a Defense Appropriation bill.

On October 28, 2009, President Obama signed the act into law. It was the first federal bill that specifically recognized the civil rights of glbtq people. Fittingly, the parents of Matthew Shepard, Judy and Dennis Shepard, were present at the signing ceremony.

Later that day, Judy Shepard issued the following statement: "When Dennis and I started calling 10 years ago for federal action to prevent and properly prosecute hate crimes against gay, lesbian and transgendered Americans, we never imagined it would take this long. The legislation went through so many versions and so many votes that we had to constantly keep our hopes in check to keep from getting discouraged," she said. "We are incredibly grateful to Congress and the president for taking this step forward on behalf of hate crime victims and their families, especially given the continuing attacks on people simply for living their lives openly and honestly."

At a reception in the White House later on October 28, 2009, President Obama eloquently declared that "we must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones, but to break spirits--not only to inflict harm, but to instill fear."

The law is necessary, he said, "Because no one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hands of the person they love. No one in America should be forced to look over their shoulder because of who they are or because they live with a disability."

Critiques of Enhanced Penalties

Critics of hate crimes legislation have charged that such legislation in effect makes certain groups of Americans more worthy, and other groups less worthy, because the "same" crime committed against a group not enumerated in hate crimes legislation does not merit as severe a punishment as when committed against a member of a protected group.

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