Hate Crime Reporting Uneven

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The FBI released its yearly hate crime statistics yesterday, showing that more than 9,000 offenses were committed because of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or physical or mental disability last year, an 8 percent increase over the year before.

But the report came under criticism because of wide discrepancies in the numbers reported by the states.

California reported the most hate crimes -- 1,604. New Jersey and Michigan reported 1,541 hate crimes combined. Virginia reported 389 hate crimes, a high among Southern states, and Maryland reported 218. One city reported more hate crimes than at least 10 states: Washington, with 64.

Northern states reported hundreds more hate crimes than Southern states, despite the South's troubled racial history and the fact that most of the victims of hate crimes were black. Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina reported fewer than 230 hate crimes combined. Louisiana, where civil rights protesters marched in Jena, a rural town where nooses were hung on a tree last year, reported 27 -- seven more than Rhode Island. Alabama reported one hate crime; Mississippi zero.

Heidi Beirich, director of research and special projects for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which studies hate groups, said many states are dismissive of hate crimes.

"I would say Southern states are the absolute worst," Beirich said. "You have states like California and New Jersey that report hundreds of hate crimes -- because they do a good job."

Alabama, she said, does not consider crimes linked to sexual orientation to be hate crimes. "That's one example of why hate crime statistics are basically a worthless number. It's not the FBI's fault."

"I really don't have an explanation for the discrepancy because it's really a voluntary reporting system," said Steve Fischer, an FBI spokesman. "There's no mandate from the FBI that states have to participate."

The scope of hate crimes appears to be larger than the 2006 statistics show, as indicated in a November 2005 special report by the Justice Department.

In "Hate Crimes Reported by Victims and Police," an article based on the National Criminal Victimization Survey and Uniform Crime Reporting, statistician Caroline Wolf Harlow said the nation had an annual average of 210,000 hate crimes between July 2000 and December 2003. About 92,000 crimes were reported to police, Harlow wrote.

An ordinary crime becomes a hate crime when a perpetrator chooses a victim because of a particular characteristic, Harlow wrote. It can be skin color, sexual orientation, physical disability or religion. And there must be evidence that hate prompted the crime.

According to the FBI's latest report, most people who commit hate crimes are white -- about 59 percent. Twenty percent are black.

In incidents involving racial bias alone, blacks represented 66 percent of the victims, the report said. Jews were more often the victims of religious violence, at 65 percent. Hispanics were more likely to be the targets of ethnic crimes, at 63 percent, and gay men, at 62 percent, were the most common victims of attacks related to sexual orientation.

"It's great that they collect this data," Beirich said, "but it doesn't tell you a whole heck of a lot."

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