WASHINGTON, July 8 (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department declined to prosecute 82% of people suspected of federal hate crimes over most of the past two decades, it said in a research report on Thursday, revealing a rate of prosecution far lower than that for other federal crimes.
The report illustrates the complexity of the job ahead for Attorney General Merrick Garland as he aims to increase federal prosecutors' focus on hate crimes and improve coordination with local law enforcement and community advocacy groups.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics said prosecutors investigated 1,864 suspects for possible hate crimes from Oct. 1, 2004 - the beginning of the 2005 fiscal year - through Sept. 30, 2019, and referred only 17% of those suspects for prosecution. One percent of hate crime suspects had their cases resolved by a magistrate judge.
The report did not provide an overall rate for the total number of suspects of federal crimes the department declined to prosecute during the study period. But the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report available shows it declined to prosecute nearly 13% of people suspected of federal crimes in the 2018 fiscal year, a far lower rate.
The department has warned that white supremacist groups represent a rising security threat to the United States after the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.
At the same time, reports of hate-inspired attacks on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have also been on the rise, spurred by what many say were former President Donald Trump's inflammatory remarks blaming the COVID-19 pandemic on China.
In May, Garland outlined new steps to help state and local police track and investigate hate crimes, which historically have been an under-reported crime to the FBI by local law enforcement, and called for the department to expedite the review of possible hate crimes.
He also ordered all 93 U.S. Attorneys around the country to assign local criminal and civil prosecutors to serve as civil rights coordinators, and asked them to establish district alliances against hate to improve coordination with local law enforcement.
Frank Pezzella, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that policy priorities are often a driving force behind whether hate crimes get prosecuted or not.
"Even at the precinct level - when there is a clear-cut policy ... that hate crimes are going to be pursued and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, it sends a message," he said.
Thursday's report also showed that when U.S. Attorneys have pursued federal hate crime charges, they have been largely successful. Conviction rates for hate crimes rose, from 83% during 2005-2009, to 94% during 2015-2019.
High-profile cases have included the successful prosecution of white supremacist Dylann Roof, who in December 2016 was found guilty of federal hate crimes after he gunned down nine Black parishioners at a church in South Carolina.
In April, the Justice Department charged three Georgia men with federal hate crimes in last year's slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was gunned down as he was out jogging through a suburban neighborhood.
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