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What Makes a Crime a Hate Crime?

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Crimes are classified in a few different ways. There are the types of crimes you often see in news headlines, like theft, robbery, assault, and murder. Then there are hate crimes, which are appended to other charges and carry greater penalties.

But what qualifies a crime specifically as a hate crime?

Hate crime cases hinge on motivation: Was the crime motivated by a bias against the victim’s race, religion, sexual orientation, or other protected aspects of their identity? Hate crime laws are usually designed to go hand-in-hand with the actual offense the person is charged with, such as assault or murder, putting greater severity on the crime due to its hateful motivations. For example, it’s not illegal to randomly spew racial epithets—but if you go so far as to punch someone because of your racial bias, the crime becomes much more serious in the eyes of the law.

Furthermore, because hate crimes are dependent on the perpetrator’s intentions, the victim doesn’t actually have to be a member of the protected class the perp thought he or she was attacking to be covered under hate crime laws. If someone attacks you because they think you’re Jewish, but you’re actually an agnostic Catholic, it’s still a hate crime. In other words: Being wrong about who to target is not a legal excuse for bigotry.

If the activities labeled hate crimes, like robbery and assault, are already crimes, why do we need more laws saying those crimes are wrong?

Hate crimes are motivated more by how a person is perceived than any of that person’s words or actions, making such crimes particularly terrifying for both the victim and the community at large. According to the Offices of the United States Attorneys:

"The fact that the victims of such crimes are selected based on characteristics such as their race or religion can cause all those in the community who share that characteristic to experience similar feelings of vulnerability and secondary victimization. In its impact on the community, the fear of becoming a victim of violence can be nearly as debilitating as suffering through an actual crime.

The message of intolerance that is communicated through a hate crime can have broadly disruptive social effects as well, and can lead to greater distrust of law enforcement or friction between racial or religious communities.”

State hate crime laws cover different classes of people in addition to those protected by federal legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Only five states do not have hate crime laws on the books. Many cover crimes perpetrated with bias concerning disabilities, sexual orientation, and gender. Some protect against biases regarding transgender individuals and gender identity, age, and even political affiliation.

Being able to classify something as a federal hate crime helps agencies like the FBI step in where state and local authorities either cannot or will not prosecute, as well as provide grants to assist local police in pursuing the case. For instance, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 expanded federal hate crime statutes to include crimes motivated by a victim’s gender, sexual orientation, and disability status as well as expanding the FBI’s ability to investigate hate crimes.

Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was beaten, tortured, and left to die in 1998, but because sexual orientation wasn’t yet a federally protected class, the Department of Justice was unable to help the Laramie, Wyoming, police work the case, and pursuing justice ended up being so costly that the police department had to furlough five of its officers to stay afloat.

James Byrd Jr. was an African-American man living in Texas who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck in 1998. Although Texas did have hate crime laws on the books, they were deemed too vague to be enforceable.

However, hate crime laws are controversial in some circles. Some free speech advocates worry that hate crime laws could be wielded to punish freedom of speech, but these laws generally only cover criminal action, not hate speech. In 2004, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the state’s hate crimes law, arguing that its language was too broad because it didn’t specify the groups that were protected under the statute. It covered all victims chosen because of general “bias or prejudice.” In May 2017, Texas broadened its hate crime laws to include police officers as a protected group, following a 2016 ambush on police that left six Dallas officers dead—though the state is also covered by all federal hate crime statutes.

The federal government’s hate crimes laws have been ruled legally sound. The legality of increasing punishment based on a person’s beliefs was affirmed in a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court case called Wisconsin v. Mitchell. Lawyers for a young black man who incited an attack on a young white man because of his race argued that the five extra years tacked on to his sentence for committing a hate crime violated his First and 14th Amendment rights, but the Supreme Court disagreed, upholding the greater penalties awarded in hate crimes.

But if hate crime statutes are in part due to how the offenses disrupt the greater community, is a terrorist attack a hate crime?

A terrorist attack isn’t always a hate crime, but it can be. The FBI defines terrorism as a violent act that’s designed to intimidate the civilian population or influence government policy, including through mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping. For example, in the summer of 2016, the FBI classified the deadly mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub as both an act of terrorism and a hate crime, saying that the shooter was motivated by anti-gay bias and because he had asserted that his actions were revenge for American airstrikes in the Middle East.

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

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What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

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