People take part in a Stop Asian Hate rally at Times Square in New York City, U.S., April 4, 2021.  REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
FILE - People take part in a Stop Asian Hate rally at Times Square in New York City, April 4, 2021.

A bill that President Joe Biden signed into law Thursday gives local and federal officials new tools and resources to combat hate crimes, while putting the spotlight on a surge in anti-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The impetus for the new law, known as the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, was a dramatic increase in attacks on Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic in Wuhan, China, more than a year ago. 

Dramatic surge  

Anti-Asian hate crimes in major U.S. cities and counties spiked by about 150% last year over the year before and 194% during the first quarter of 2021 compared with the first quarter of 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino. 

President Joe Biden hands out a pen after signing the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, in the East Room of the White House, May 20, 2021.

While highlighting the violence against Asian Americans, the law takes a broader aim at all hate crimes by calling for the appointment of a new Justice Department official to speed up a review of hate crime cases and providing resources for local police departments to improve the way they identify and report hate crimes.  

Quicker response 

"This new law will help speed our response to hate crimes and provide resources to law enforcement to improve hate crime reporting," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. "The law will assist law enforcement in targeting its efforts, which will help to prevent these devastating crimes and to respond efficiently and effectively to crimes, when they occur." 

Attorney General Merrick Garland talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California before the signing of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, in the East Room of the White House, May 20, 2021.

Among its key provisions, the bill: 

— Directs the attorney general to designate a point person to undertake an "expedited review" of hate crimes reported to the Justice Department for possible prosecution.   

— Directs the Justice Department to help local and state law enforcement agencies improve their hate crime data collection and reporting. The department is to issue guidance for local and state agencies to provide online reporting in multiple foreign languages.

— Establishes grants for states to create hate crime reporting hotlines that would direct callers to law enforcement or local support services.

— Allows a judge to require an individual convicted of a hate crime to take "educational classes" as a condition of supervised release. 

Under the law, Garland has seven days to task an official with speeding up a review of hate crime cases. A Justice Department spokesman said the attorney general has not yet selected anyone for the position. 

Just how much of a difference the legislation will make remains to be seen. The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division is responsible for prosecuting federal hate crime cases. Most hate crimes are prosecuted at the state level.  

Expedited decision-making 

The hope is that the appointment will increase the rate at which the Justice Department decides whether to pursue a case, said Stephen Gilson, a former hate crimes prosecutor for the department and now an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. 

"The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act does not actually include data about whether or not there is a particular backlog [of hate crime reports], but to the extent that there is, there's always a need to continue to review these reports," Gilson said.  

Improving hate crime reporting 

Arguably more important than the creation of a new position is the law's focus on improving how hate crimes are reported. Under a 1990 law, the FBI collects hate crime statistics submitted by thousands of law enforcement agencies. But the submission process is voluntary, resulting in a perennial undercount. 

A key provision of the newly enacted law, known as the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, seeks to tackle this problem. The Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act is named after Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer, whose killings in recent years were prosecuted as hate crimes but not reported as such to the FBI. 

Grant applications 

Now, local law enforcement agencies can apply for Justice Department grants to conduct training related to identifying and investigating hate crimes and to set up statewide hotlines designed to encourage increased reporting of hate crimes, Gilson noted. 

Ultimately, though, the impact of the new law will come down to whether local agencies embrace it, according to Gilson. For example, any improvement in hate crime data collection will depend in part on whether local agencies apply for grants. 

"If these agencies take advantage of these grant opportunities to increase training, to increase awareness, and thus become subject to increased reporting requirements, it could make a substantial difference, because … the federal hate crimes reporting requirements as they stand are inadequate," Gilson said.