The Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act: Five Years Later

  • October 15, 2014

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA), enacted into law on October 28, 2009, is the most important, comprehensive, and inclusive federal hate crime enforcement law passed in the past 40 years.


The HCPA encourages partnerships between state and federal law enforcement officials to more effectively address hate violence, and provides expanded authority for federal hate crime investigations and prosecutions when local authorities are unwilling or unable to act.  Importantly, the HCPA adds sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability to the groups which previously had federal protection against hate crimes – race, color, religion and national origin.

For more than a dozen years, the Anti-Defamation League led a broad coalition of civil rights, religious, educational, professional, law enforcement, and civic organizations advocating for the HCPA. The legislation was stalled by fierce opposition from some conservative organizations — and, for eight years, by President George W. Bush — in large part because it provided new authority for the FBI and the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute cases in which members of LGBT communities were targeted for violence.  Energetic support by President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.  was essential to achieving final passage of the measure.

The HCPA has proven to be a valuable tool for federal prosecutors.  The Department of Justice has brought more than two dozen cases over the past five years – and has successfully defended the constitutionality of the Act against several constitutional challenges.

Enactment of the HCPA also sparked a wel­come round of police train­ing and out­reach – and the devel­op­ment of a num­ber of sig­nif­i­cant new hate crime train­ing and pre­ven­tion resources, including an updated Hate Crime Model Policy prepared by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Yet, much work remains to be done.  Hate crimes remain a serious national problem. In 2012 (according to the most recent data available) the FBI documented more than 6,500 hate crimes – almost one every hour of every day. The most frequent were motivated by race, followed by religion and sexual orientation.  Of the crime motivated by religion, more than 60 percent targeted Jews or Jewish institutions.

Unfortunately, more than 90 cities with populations over 100,000 either did not participate in the FBI 2012 data collection program or affirmatively reported zero (0) hate crimes. That is unacceptable. As FBI Director James B. Comey said in remarks to the 2014 ADL Leadership Summit, “We must continue to impress upon our state and local counterparts in every jurisdiction the need to track and report hate crime. It is not something we can ignore or sweep under the rug.”

The fifth anniversary of the HCPA provides an important teachable moment.  It is a fitting occasion for advocates, the Obama Administration, and Congress to promote awareness of the HCPA, to report on the progress our nation has made in preventing hate violence, and to rededicate ourselves to effectively responding to bias crimes when they occur.