Federal officials are investigating the Charleston, S.C., church shooting as a hate crime, and the U.S. Justice Department could weigh in with a federal hate crimes charge. South Carolina prosecutors can’t add hate crime charges, because the state is one of five without a hate crime law, NPR reports. Defendant Dylann Roof may face the death penalty, regardless of his motives. Proponents of hate crime laws say the additional punishment is important for criminal justice. “People understand that this is something different,” said Brandeis University president Fred Lawrence, who specializes in hate crimes. “If we were to say to the African-American community of Charleston, ‘we’re just going to treat this like any murder, we don’t think the race of the victims is relevant at all,’ I think that would be an enormous affront to that community,” he said.
It’s rare for federal law enforcement to get involved in hate crime cases, because most fall under state law. Most hate crime cases involve vandalism, assault, aggravated assault and murder. The feds get involved if they think the state’s penalties don’t adequately address the crime. In the 45 states with hate crime laws, they can make a big difference in sentencing. They may call for adding years to a prison term or changing a crime from misdemeanor to felony. The FBI found about 6,000 hate crime incidents reported in 2013. It’s likely a vast undercount; the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated nearly 300,000 hate crimes in 2012, based on victim surveys. If the laws are effective, wouldn’t the number of incidents be going down each year? Not necessarily. Proponents say a stronger law means more people may be willing to report hate crimes who wouldn’t have before.