The Case for Hate Crime Statutes-Putative Uniqueness of Injuries

  • Frank S. PezzellaEmail author
Part of the SpringerBriefs in Criminology book series (BRIEFSCRIMINOL)


Advocates of hate crime statutes suggest they are needed because hate crimes are fundamentally different than their ordinary crime counterparts. Hate crimes allegedly hurt more than comparable non-hate-motivated crimes on a number of levels. First, hate crimes have been found to be more physically injurious to primary victims. Second, advocates suggest hate crimes sustain multidimensional injuries including physical, emotional, psychological, and quality of life injuries. Third, hate crimes allegedly affect society at large by undermining democratic ideals of equality, intergroup trust and inclusion. Several scholars suggest hate crime uniquely perpetrate “in terrorum” effects on direct victims but also on proximal and distal victims who share group membership with the primary victim. Finally, proponents of hate crime statutes argue hate crimes are more likely to generate retaliatory victimizations that further polarize discrete groups within a heterogeneous society.


Severe hate crime injuries Multidimensional injuries Physical injuries Primary victims Secondary victims Vicarious victims In terrorum effects 

Hate crime statutes are primarily based on the notion that hate-motivated criminal behavior is more injurious than parallel non-hate-motivated offenses (Iganski 2002; Herek et al. 2002; Lawrence 2009; Perry 2009; Pezzella and Fetzer 2015). Moreover, proponents of hate crime statutes argue that hate crimes are message crimes sent to vicarious victims who possess similar immutable characteristics and group membership as the primary victim. Perhaps the most significant evidence of the uniqueness of hate crimes is the multidimensional injuries primary and vicarious victims sustain. The multidimensional impact of hate crimes include a plethora of physical, psychological, emotional and behavioral injuries  to the victim. As a result, the  elevated  severity of harm characterized  by the multidimensional nature of hate crime injuries is reflected  in penalty enhancement or substantive criminal law statutes that upgrade punishment beyond that of parallel non-hate-motivated crimes.

Proponents of hate crime statutes argue several justifications for treating hate-motivated offenders more severely than their ordinary crime counterparts. First, they contend hate crime statutes that enhance penalties provide for protection of primary victims of the hate attack and vicarious victims inclusive of all members of the primary bias victim’s group. Levin (2002) posited that hate crimes are serial in nature and extend the initial victimization to subsequent and secondary victimizations. As a result, Levin (2002) argued governments have a compelling interest in precluding justification for retaliatory victimizations. Concern for retaliatory victimization was also mentioned in the Wisconsin V. Mitchell, U.S. 505 U.S. 476 (1993) decision, wherein the Court noted “hate crimes are thought to be more likely to provoke retaliatory crimes, inflict distinct emotional harm on their victims, and incite community unrest.” Acknowledging the capacity of hate crimes to incite retaliatory victimization and community unrest, the Oregon Court of Appeals also posited that hate crimes have “the power to escalate from individual conflicts to mass disturbances” (State v. Beebe, 67 Or. App. 738 1994). The issue of retaliatory victimizations was also delineated in the legislative findings supporting the enactment of 18 U.S. 249, the Matthew Shepard and Robert Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act:

A prominent characteristic of violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim and the family and friends of the victim, but frequently savages the community sharing traits that caused the victim to be selected.

In addition to primary, serial, and secondary victimizations, proponents of hate crime statutes argue that hate crimes are more psychologically and physically injurious than their ordinary crime counterparts (Levin and McDevitt 1993; Boeckman and Petrosino 2002; Messner et al. 2004; Lim 2009; Perry 2014; Iganski and Lagou 2014; Pezzella and Fetzer 2015).

Psychological Injuries

Hate scholars posit that the psychological trauma of hate crimes exist in the aftermath of the hate crime incident. Several studies incorporating varying methodologies and samples have found hate victims sustain elevated rates of fear and emotional trauma directly related to their victimization. Berrill’s (1990) study of antigay violence and victimization surveys in the United States reported gay and lesbian men not only fear antigay harassment and violence, but also anticipate victimizations in the future. Specifically, between 51 and 79 % feared for their safety and between 76 and 88 % expected to be future targets of antigay violence. Barnes and Ephross (1994) used a small sample of 59 bias victims to compare bias and non-bias victimizations and found the most prevalent reaction of bias victims was anger followed by fear. In a national telephone victimization survey of over 2000 respondents, Erlich et al. (1994) compared victimization experiences in four groups of non-victims, group defamation victims, personal crime victims, and bias victims. Bias crime victims reflected the greatest number of psychophysiological symptoms of post-traumatic stress and social and behavioral changes. The report concluded that hate crime victims suffered through major life changing patterns and were significantly more nervous, lost more friends, incurred more insomnia, and generally found themselves unable to concentrate.

Herek et al. (1999) conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of the deleterious effects of hate crime victimizations on gay and lesbian persons. Incorporating a convenience sample of 2000 gay, lesbian and bisexual respondents, they found distinct adverse psychological sequelae associated with gay and lesbian victimizations up to 5 years after the incident. Gay and lesbian victims of bias crimes relative to non-bias victims, experienced excessive levels of depressive symptoms, crime related anxiety, anger, and slower rates of recovery. In later research, Herek et al. (2002) interviewed another convenience sample of 450 lesbian and gay victims and again detected higher levels of fear and psychological stress in bias victims relative to non-victims during the same period.

McDevitt et al. (2001) conducted another comprehensive study of the psychological and behavioral aftermath of bias victimizations. They utilized a sample of bias and non-bias assaults victims using victim agency advocate and Boston police records from 1992–1997. Although the study retained low victim response rates to their survey instrument, numerous psychological, behavioral, and situational factors distinguished bias from non-bias victimizations. Bias victims cited that they were more nervous, depressed, sustained trouble concentrating, thought about the incident longer, and felt like they didn’t wish to live any longer much more than their non-bias victims counterparts. Moreover, bias victims were less likely to feel safe after the incident, more likely to incur health problems, and a divorce or separation or loss of employment. McDevitt et al. (2001) concluded that bias victims had more difficulty coping after the victimization and appear to have additional problems with their recovery process due to their prolonged fear and more intrusive thoughts. Further, they noted this finding supported the earlier hypothesis of victim interchangeability. Victim Interchangeability in the mindset of primary or potential secondary victims means “any individual who possesses or perceived to possess, a specific trait could be selected as a target” (McDevitt et al. 2001: p. 698). McDevitt et al. (2001) and other hate scholars (Lim 2009; Perry 2001, 20092014) posit that victim interchangeability adds another level of psychological trauma to the victimization experience primarily because of the victim’s inability to reconcile control of potential future hate attacks through some physical change in their behavior scholars conceptualize as victim blaming. Victim blaming is an internal psychological process that allows victims to recall their own decisions prior to the victimization and then to consider alternate and changeable ways of avoiding future victimization. However, because hate victims are chosen exactly because of immutable characteristics interchangeable with any in their groups, victim blaming is not in the psychological repertoire of most hate crime victims . Consequently, because victims are interchangeable, they are unable to proactively do anything to escape their chances of future victimization by changing their sense of vulnerability.

In a cross-sectional study of 350 lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youths, Dragowski et al. (2011) examined the relationship between significant life experiences of sex orientation LGB victims and post-traumatic stress symptoms (PSS). They found that verbal and physical sexual orientation victimizations, childhood gender, atypicality, and internalized homophobia were all individually related to post-traumatic stress. Verbal and physical sexual orientation victimization explained PSS over all the study’s other variables. Internalized homophobia, stressful life events, and verbal sexual orientation victimization were found to be the most significant predictors of PSS among LGB youth.

Finally, in a study incorporating the most representative and hence, generalizable sample, Iganski and Lagou (2014) analyzed a 6 years sample of multidimensional injuries reported by victims from the British Crime survey. A comparison of physical, emotional, psychological, and behavioral injuries between bias and non-bias victims were assessed in their analyses. They found that Bias crime victims reported they were “more likely to have an emotional reaction to the incident and with greater intensity compared with otherwise motivated crimes” (p. 41). Moreover, they found the gap between the two groups widened when the extent of the emotional reaction was considered. “Victims in incidents of hate crimes were over twice as likely as victims in incidents of otherwise motivated crimes to state that they had been affected very much” (p. 41).

Physical Injuries

Hate crime statute advocates also posit that bias crimes are physically more injurious and brutal than parallel non-bias crimes. Levin’s (1999) analysis of hate crime assaults found that that they were twice as likely to cause injury and four times more likely to require hospitalization. Levine and McDevitt’s (1993) review of 452 Boston police hate crime records detected that 50 % of the hate crime cases resulted in severe physical injury requiring hospitalization. They noted the excessively brutal nature of bias crime cases. Similarly, Strom (2001) analyzed aggravated assaults derived from the 1997 through 1999 National Incident-Based Reporting system (NIBRS). He found that sixty percent of the total bias crimes studied involved serious injuries to victims. Messner et al. (2004) used a 1999 NIBRS sample to analyze intimidation, simple, and aggravated assaults. They found that race and other biases were almost three times more likely to result in major injuries including broken bones, severe lacerations, etc. compared to non-bias cases. In a recent study of assaults incorporating a 2010 NIBRS sample, Pezzella and Fetzer (2015) found that anti-white and lesbian victims sustained the most severe injuries in comparison to other bias types.

However, other research on the severity of physical injuries did not detect differences between bias and non-bias crimes. A few studies found non-bias crimes more likely to sustain severe injuries. Martin (1996) analyzed comparable cases of assaults from New York City and Baltimore County bias crime units and found that non-bias (49 %) exceeded bias (27 %) injuries in Baltimore County. Similarly, non-bias (93 %) exceeded bias (81 %) injuries in New York City. McDevitt et al. (2001) found similar results in their study of injuries. They reported an association between the extent of medical treatment received by respondents and type of victimization. Non-bias victims (52.1 %) who received emergency medical services or hospital treatment reflected a statistically significant higher rate of hospitalization than bias victims (37.1 %). Iganski and Lagou (2014) assessment of victimization experiences found that hate-motivated victims were less likely to report injuries than to report no injuries unlike victims of non-bias motivated crimes who were more likely to report injuries compared to reporting no injuries. Studies of the physical injuries of hate crimes have produced mixed results.

Secondary Victimization Effects

The vicarious and deleterious effect of hate crimes on proximal and distal victims has also been studied (Weinstein 1992; Perry 2001, 2014; Perry and Alvi 2012; Iganski and Lagou 2014). Weinstein (1992) posited that race violence inflicts an “in terrorem effect: an intimidation of the group by the victimization of one or more members of that group” and to society at large. Perry and Alvi (2012) analyzed “in terrorem” victimization effects in their analysis of secondary victimizations derived from focus group discussions and analysis of a nonprobability sample of vicarious victims . They reported secondary victim “in terrorem” effects inclusive of feelings of shock, anger, fear/vulnerability, inferiority, and normativity on vicarious victims. They posited that secondary victims realize that another group wishes to exert power; reinforce inferiority and subordination; and force acceptance that hate crimes, stigmatization and marginalization is normative within our society.

Not unlike international terrorism, recall the goal of the hate crime attack is to send a message of superiority, vulnerability, and imminent danger to victims (Lim 2009; Perry and Alvi 2012). According to Lim (2009) and Perry and Alvi (2012) the hate message is often received with the full effect of the offender’s intention. The sense of victim interchangeability causes vicarious victims that are proximally and distally close to the primary victim to sense the constant threat of violence. Consequently, vicarious victims change and safeguard their behavior while unconsciously accepting bias victimization as normative possibility consistent with the threat of victim interchangeability. Thus, a proximal effect of hate crimes is the stigmatization of group members and the developing sense of vulnerability to potential future victimization as normative. Under these dire circumstances, feelings of safety and security for vicarious victims slowly erode (Levin and McDevitt 1993; Lim 2009; Perry 2014). According to Lim’s (2009) content analysis, Asian American secondary victims fear for their safety and livelihood when aware of a hate crime attack against another Asian American. Consequently, hate violence permeates the minds of secondary victims and is anticipated and firmly managed through constrained choices of how far to depart from the group members’ ecological comfort zone.

Perhaps the most distal victim of bias motivated behaviors is society as a whole (Weinstein 1992; Iganski 2001; Perry 2014). Violence motivated by hate affirms natural intergroup suspicion, creates separation, and undermines the possibility of intergroup collective efficacy (Perry 2014). Perry (2014) refers to this as the collateral damage impact on shared values. She notes that hate crimes, if left unchallenged, will deteriorate relationships between communities and long deeply held values of inclusion, equity, and justice. Voluntary segregation, or the exercise of restricting one’s self to the immediate community to avoid repeat victimization is a natural reaction to hate-motivated violence. Unfortunately, this is also  compliant with the offender’s purpose to intimidate and compel subordinate behavior.

In summary, proponents of hate crime statutes argue hate crimes uniquely injure primary and secondary victims and society at large. Empirical evidence is mixed regarding the distinct severity of hate crimes injuries; however, both theoretical and empirical findings suggest hate crimes inflict emotional and behavioral injuries. The most distal victim of hate crimes is society itself when democratic ideals of inclusion and collective efficacy are undermined and the potential for intergroup distrust and conflict is escalated.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Criminal JusticeJohn Jay College of Criminal JusticeNew YorkUSA

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