Hate crime is a complex problem in modern society and its recent emergence as a criminal justice (and criminological) concern signals shifts in public perceptions about the impact of prejudice and discrimination on a range of social groups. The development of criminal sanctions against offences motivated by hatred is part of a suite of policies aimed at tackling discrimination on grounds of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, disability and religion. According to the UK Home Office (2007a):
Hate crime is any criminal offence committed against a person or property that is motivated by an offender’s hatred of someone because of their:
race, colour, ethnic origin, nationality or national origins religion gender or gender identity sexual orientation disability
Hate crimes may take the form of physical attacks on persons or property, threats or intimidation, verbal or written insults and abuse or bullying – they may involve the co-presence of a perpetrator and a victim (as in the case of physical assault) or these may be distributed in time and space (as in the case of hate speech on the internet). Note that it is not the hatred itself that is a crime – prosecutions cannot be brought simply on the grounds of hating some person or group. Rather, prosecutions are brought on the grounds that criminal offences are aggravated or motivated by, or are intended to provoke or incite, such hatred. These questions of motivation, aggravation, and so on, are the most difficult of all since they are not defined in law. Rather, a hate crime is defined as ‘any incident, which constitutes a criminal offence, which is perceived by the victim or any other person as being motivated by prejudice or hate’. Thus, in line with developments in other areas of the criminal justice system (such as Antisocial Behaviour Orders) the key issue is how the behaviour is subjectively perceived, rather than what it objectively effects. In England and Wales, hate crimes began to make their way onto the statute books with the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, which introduced several categories of racial and religious aggravation in criminal prosecutions. The Criminal Justice Act of 2003 added legal provisions
relating to the prosecution of criminal offences motivated by hatred of a victim’s sexual orientation. The 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act ‘made it a criminal offence to use threatening words or behaviour with the intention of stirring up hatred against any group of people defined by their religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs’ (Home Office, 2007a). Across England and Wales in the year 2005-6 the police recorded 50,000 racially and religiously motivated crimes whilst the British Crime Survey estimated that around 260,000 such incidents took place. The dominant image of hate crime is that of crime between
strangers – that is, of perpetrators randomly selecting targets based simply on the fact that they represent some hated characteristic. Indeed, some criminologists propose the same view – that victims and perpetrators tend to be unknown to each other and that one of the defining characteristics of hate crimes is that perpetrator and victim are mutual strangers. Whilst much hate crime is indeed reported as being committed by strangers (see Lawrence, 1999; Clancy et al., 2001), the picture is not as simple as this. For a start, official figures suggest that perpetrator and victim often live in close proximity to each other and that the crimes themselves tend to occur relatively close to the victim’s home. This suggests the possibility that it is more, rather than less, likely that the offender will be at least familiar, if not directly acquainted, with their chosen victim. Moreover, a growing body of criminological research (Bowling, 1993; Stanko, 2001; Ray and Smith, 2002) suggests that hate crime is a far more ordinary and mundane feature of the urban landscape than has been represented in much of the literature. When sexual, racial and homophobic assaults are considered overall it is, in fact, relatively common for perpetrator and victim to be known to each other. Often, the perpetrators tend to be family members or other intimates, neighbours, local youths or, in the case of some racist assaults against business premises, known customers (Mason, 2005). These observations have persuaded some criminologists to argue that such crimes should be considered not as discrete events but as dynamic social processes – particularly as racial and sexual victimisation tend to be repetitive, long-term and, in too many cases, systematic (Bowling, 1993: 239). The specific offence occurs in the context of ongoing relationships between intimate familiars (as in the case of domestic assault) or between locally acquainted individuals (as in the case of many racially motivated crimes). Yet, even here, the situation is not straightforward because there are significant variations in the experiences of different groups and variations in levels
of familiarity between victims and offenders in different crime categories. Bowling points to important differences in the experiences of Afro-Caribbean and Asian victims, whilst Mason (2005: 840) reports that
research has consistently found that lesbians are more likely to know the perpetrator than gay men; victims who live in a nonmetropolitan area are more likely to know the perpetrator than those who live in the city; younger victims appear more likely to know the perpetrator than older victims; and those who suffer physical injury are more likely to know the perpetrator than those who do not.