WASHINGTON - At a time when hate crimes are on the rise in the United States, federal prosecutions of such offenses have declined sharply under the administration of President Donald Trump, according to data released this week by the Justice Department.
Since the enactment of a landmark federal hate crimes law 10 years ago, federal prosecutors have charged more than 330 people with hate crime offenses, including more than 70 people during the past three years, the Justice Department said Wednesday.
Although the department said it has "strengthened its hate crimes prosecution program" in recent years, the figures show a decline of nearly 38% in the number of people charged with hate crimes annually over the past three years when compared with prosecutions during the last seven years of the previous administration. This comes as bias-motivated crimes against Blacks, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ people and other protected classes have continued to rise in recent years.
The Justice Department did not respond to repeated requests for an explanation for the decrease.
Focus on massacres?
Brian Levin, director of the center for the study of Hate and Extremism at the California State University, San Bernardino, said one reason may be the Justice Department's recent focus on high-profile cases with multiple fatalities.
"Maybe they're putting their resources [there] because we had these big massacres," Levin said.
However, Levin added, a "38% drop in prosecutions at a time when hate crimes have actually increased significantly is a cause for concern and certainly requires some kind of explanation from the government with respect to this."
According to the most recent data from the FBI, hate crimes rose by more than 20% in 2016 and 2017. Figures for 2018 will be released next month.
Justice Department officials say combating hate crime remains one of their top priorities.
"Hate crimes are especially reprehensible because of the toll they take on families, communities, and our nation as a whole. Precisely because they are fueled by bias against specific people and groups, they also are a grave affront to America's foundational principles and ideals," said Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement.
Cases brought this year
In touting the prosecution figures on the 10th anniversary of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Justice Department highlighted several cases brought under the law this year.
In January, Robert Bowers, a white nationalist accused of killing 11 people and injuring six others at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, synagogue, was charged with 13 violations of the Matthew Shepard Act on top of 44 charges he was facing. He faces a maximum penalty of life without parole.
In May, John T. Earnest, a 19-year-old inspired by two mosque massacres in New Zealand, was charged in a 113-count indictment, including 54 counts under the Matthew Shepard Act, for a deadly shooting at a synagogue and the arson of a mosque in southern California.
In June, James Alex Fields Jr., a white supremacist, was sentenced to life in prison for driving a car into a crowd of counterprotesters at the "United the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, killing one woman and injuring dozens. Fields had pleaded guilty to 29 violations of the Matthew Shepard law.
Who were Shepard and Byrd?
The law is named after two men whose 1998 murders shocked the nation: Shepard, a 21-year-old college student in Wyoming who was tortured and killed for being gay, and Byrd, a 49-year-old African American who was tied to a truck, dragged and decapitated by two white supremacists in Texas. It expanded the scope of hate crimes to cover attacks on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, gender identify or disability.
"I think the Department of Justice is certainly doing an excellent job with respect to certain high profile multifatality cases," Levin said. "What I'm concerned about is the decline overall."
Federal hate crime prosecutions represent a fraction of overall criminal prosecutions of bias offenses, which take place at the state level. Currently, all but three states have hate crime laws on their books.