The title mostly says it all. I understand the motivation of hate crime legislation, and if it works I'm totally supportive of it. However, I'm curious if it works in practice. Are criminals really saying "well, I was totally going to commit that crime out of bigotry, but now that I face another five years for my bigotry it's no longer worth the risk"? That just seems a bit more rational then I expect from the average bigoted criminal. So I'm looking for studies that look into the efficacy of hate crime legislation and rather they successfully decrease the amount of hate motivated crimes.

When I refer to 'hate crime legislation' I'm actually asking about a specific subset of laws. I'm only interested in laws that add an additional penalty for an existing crime if it's demonstrated that this crime was primarily motivated by a hatred or bias against a group (race, sex, gender, religion, etc.) that the victim was part of. I am not asking about the legislation that would penalize someone for doing something otherwise legal if the motivation was hatred of the victims identity. So for example a law that would add additional penalty if It can be demonstrated the motive for beating someone up was their skin color would be relevant to my question, but I'm not asking about laws that prevent firing someone because they turned out to be gay since firing someone would otherwise be legal if not for the motivation of the firing.

I'm looking for peer reviewed scientific studies, not opinion or anecdote. I'm most interested in the USA perspective, but I'd be willing to accept studies done in any first world nation.

  • 1
    I am not sure if that matters or not as you could ask the same question of other laws reducing the frequency of crimes. In the cases you are talking about the acts are already crimes and existing laws are not preventing them so why would you expect new laws to prevent them when all they do is change the punishment? If one punishment doesn't prevent a crime why would another one prevent it?
    – Joe W
    Commented Jan 21, 2022 at 16:11
  • 5
    A problem is that hate crime legislation increases awareness of hate crimes and reporting of hate crimes, so numbers will appear to rise even if no more people are actually being victimized.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 21, 2022 at 17:16
  • 4
    Of course if you repeal all hate crimes, you reduce the number of hate crimes to zero. Similarly if you decriminalise drugs you eliminate drug crime. And if you legalise homicide... etc.
    – James K
    Commented Jan 21, 2022 at 20:35
  • 2
    As a practical matter it is very hard to prove. Peer reviewed evidence on the impact of the death penalty, e.g., is modest at best, and there is also a literature on why people obey laws when there are no penalties at all. Eliminating confounding factors is very hard and devising a difference within difference model to study it (which is pretty much the only way you could) is hard because the sample sizes are small.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 22, 2022 at 1:01
  • 2
    @StuartF Something also seen with rape statistics: countries with more comprehensive laws against sexual assaults, or where the police can be expected to a better job tracking down perpetrators can often see a rise in numbers of reported rapes For example, the number of reported rapes actually rose significantly in Philadelphia when city police instituted reforms. However there is nothing wrong with asking this question, IMHO, after all laws are supposed to be there to improve things. Commented Jan 22, 2022 at 3:19

1 Answer 1


Severity of punishment doesn't act as a deterrence:

There is no empirical evidence that offenders (in any context) are deterred by the magnitude of punishment – the only factor that has been shown to deter (rationally calculating) potential offenders in practice is the likelihood of being apprehended.

What effect creating a hate crime has is a message from society to all potential offenders that "this is bad":

Hate crime legislation may serve an educative function by consistently sending a message that prejudice is socially unacceptable. Such a message may actually have the effect, over a long period of time, of decreasingly the incidence of prejudiced motivated incidents. ... It is plausible, then, that the repeated denunciation of hate crime over time may make it societally less acceptable and reduce its incidence in the long term.

However establishing a causal link would be hard, and my source does not attempt it. Hate crime legislation is enacted in an environment in which a sufficient number of people want hate crime legislation. It is necessarily part of a social change that makes prejudice against a particular group less acceptable. And of course, hate crime legislation both affects and is affected by societal shifts. Unpicking which changes to hate crime rates changes are a direct effect, which are an indirect effect and which are a coincident effect.

In your context, of course your bigot won't think "I was planning to go and do some hate crime today but since it would add a year to my sentence, I think I'll stay home and watch Netflix". But though a process of social education symbolised by the existence of hate crimes, there is hope that his mind set will be different from the start

As evidence of this, look at the history of the USA. The level of racism now is shocking but compare it to 50 years ago. The number of attacks on gay men remains too high, but 50 years ago, homosexuality was widely illegal. Society has made progress, and hate crime legislation is a symbol of that progress and a motivation to make more.


https://eprints.gla.ac.uk/147020/1/147020.pdf page 39


  • 1
    A fairly good analogy is the way that employment discrimination in hiring laws work. It is very hard to prove in litigation and essentially impossible for an individual victim of it to prove. But simply making it illegal actually had a lot of impact, not due to a calculated risk-benefit analysis, but because big businesses operate with the policy of obeying the law which in turn changed corporate culture about what was acceptable to do. Singling out hate crimes when they arise might change norms about hate because people don't like to side with people who lose or get punished for their acts.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 22, 2022 at 0:58
  • 1
    Increasing the punishment also sends the message that the government takes it seriously, which can increase the perceived likelihood of them spending the resources to investigate and prosecute. Commented Jan 22, 2022 at 1:41
  • where does that first point come from? I knew a couple kids who stopped shoplifting when they turned 18; are you suggesting they were more worried about getting caught in their "old age" than they were the increased punishment for non-juvenile theft offenders?
    – dandavis
    Commented Jan 22, 2022 at 5:32
  • 1
    The first point comes from eprints.gla.ac.uk/147020/1/147020.pdf page 39 However its quite easy to find similar results. There is very little to no non-annecdotal evidence that the severity of punishment acts as deterrence.
    – James K
    Commented Jan 23, 2022 at 0:29

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .