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Justice Department Steps Up Hate Crime Prosecutions

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FILE - People march during a ‘Stop Asian Hate’ rally in downtown Detroit, Michigan on March 27,2021, as part of a nation wide protest in solidarity against hate crimes directed towards Asian Americans.

With hate crimes on the rise, U.S. federal prosecutors have charged more than 40 people with bias-motivated crimes since January 2021, obtaining over 35 convictions, the Justice Department said Friday.

Among those convicted were three white men found guilty by a jury in February in connection with the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a young man who was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia, in 2020.

The department released the figures as officials marked the first anniversary of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act and announced new measures to combat hate crimes. The law required the Justice Department to speed up a review of hate crime cases.

The announcement comes less than a week after an 18-year-old gunman was charged with killing 10 people and injuring three others at a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. The Justice Department is investigating the shooting as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism.

“No one in this country should have to fear the threat of hate-fueled violence,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said during a ceremony at the Justice Department. “The Justice Department will continue to use every resource at its disposal to confront unlawful acts of hate, and to hold accountable those who perpetrate them.”

The number of reported hate crime prosecutions is up compared to recent years. A 2021 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that federal prosecutors had charged an average of about 21 defendants and obtained an average of 19 hate crime convictions per year over a 15-year period.

Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department faced criticism for deprioritizing civil rights enforcement. Trump administration officials rebutted the charge, with the Justice Department’s top civil rights official stating in January 2021 that his division had brought the highest number of hate crime charges during Trump’s final year in office.

He did not provide a number. A Justice Department spokesperson did not respond to a VOA request for figures on hate crime prosecutions during the Trump administration.

Federal law makes it a crime to target a victim because of their race, gender or gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity. Criminal offenses prosecuted as hate crimes range from acts of violence to damage to a religious property.

Most hate crimes are prosecuted at the state and local level, and federal prosecutors bring charges in exceptional circumstances. In fact, the vast majority of hate crime cases referred to the Justice Department do not get prosecuted.

A hate crime conviction carries harsh penalties. But hate crimes are difficult to prosecute. To obtain a conviction, prosecutors must prove that the defendant was motivated by bias and not simply that the victim belonged to a protected class.

Last year, hate crimes in 37 major U.S. cities increased by nearly 39%, with attacks on Asian and Jewish Americans accounting for the bulk of the increase, according to police data compiled by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

In response to the surge in incidents, the Justice Department last year appointed an anti-hate crimes coordinator, tasked a top prosecutor to expedite a review of hate crime cases, and designated a civil rights coordinator in every U.S. attorney’s office in the country.

In addition, Garland said the department is making use of its non-criminal tools to combat hate crimes. Along with the Department of Health and Human services, the Justice Department is issuing new guidance aimed at raising awareness of hate crimes and hate incidents; releasing $10 million in grant solicitations for new programs to create state-run hotlines and support community groups; and hiring the department’s first ever language access coordinator.

“We know that language access is a key barrier to the reporting of hate crimes and hate incidents … and (the new official) will help improve knowledge, use, and expansion of the Department of Justice’s language resources,” Garland said.

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