Any crime motivated by a bias against a person or group based on their ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual preference, religion or any another characteristic is categorized as a hate crime. These crimes can either be committed against an individual or their property.
There are both state and federal laws that prohibit hate crimes, but proving a motive or bias is very difficult. Any type of crime can warrant some form of punishment, from fines and short prison stays for misdemeanors to long term imprisonment for felonies. Once it has been determined that a suspect willfully committed an offense, proof must be given indicating the deed was motivated by a particular bias to prove that it was a hate crime. When this is proven, the severity of the crime automatically increases. Any punishment that would have been given out for a wrong doing will also increase if it is shown to have been driven by hatred.
The punishment for committing a hate crime is harsh because while most crimes are only directed at an individual, hate crimes are committed against an entire segment of the population. A burglar who breaks into a random home does so for personal gain, and usually doesn’t even know who lives in the home they are invading. Conversely, a person who chooses a victim based on a particular bias is singling out a characteristic that is common to a particular group of people. The judiciary branch has cracked down on these types of crimes in the hopes of deterring people from committing them. There have been many disputes about whether or not this practice is legal, and the matter even reached the United States Supreme Court. Their decision was that it is legal to increase penalties for hate crimes and that it does not violate the Constitution.
In order for a hate crime to receive additional punishment, the state in which the crime was committed must have rules against that specific offense. All but 6 states have rules against crimes based on a bias against ethnicity, race, or religion, but only 29 states have laws that protect people who are victimized because of their sexuality or gender identity. Fewer still have protections for misdeeds involving age, disability, or gender biases. Members of the federal government are attempting to include all of these categories in the list of hate related criminal activities that they prosecute so that every example of this crime will warrant harsher forms of punishment.