In a campaign mailer, Gina Hinojosa of Austin brought up incarceration. "Texas has a higher incarceration rate than Russia or Iran. It’s time to reverse course," Hinojosa said.
We spotted that curious claim a few days before Hinojosa, a member of Austin’s school board, drew 57 percent of the vote to prevail in a seven-person field competing for the Democratic nomination to represent Austin's District 49 in the Texas House. She’s now almost certain to succeed longtime Rep. Elliott Naishtat after the November election; no Republican filed to run.
To help Texas "reverse course," as the mailer said, Hinojosa would focus on youth initiatives to keep young people out of the criminal justice system, her campaign director, Patti Everitt, told us by email. Hinojosa favors decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, supporting youth jobs programs and backing educational reforms such as universal all-day pre-kindergarten.
And was Hinojosa right that Texas has a higher incarceration rate than Russia or Iran?
U.S. incarceration numbers
Asked the basis of Hinojosa’s comparison, Everitt said by email the campaign relied on a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that does research with the aim to "expose the broader harm of mass criminalization," according to its website.
The cited report, "States of Incarceration: A Global Context," includes a graphic showing incarceration rates by state alongside incarceration rates of many countries.
Texas is listed with the fifth-highest incarceration rate, of 1,063 per 100,000 in population. Russia has the 44th-highest rate, at 475 per 100,000; Iran is listed with the 68th-highest, at 284.
Then again, many states look bad in the report. Russia is only the third foreign nation on the list, behind Cuba and Rwanda. Otherwise, the 42 places with higher incarceration rates are U.S. states or the United States as a whole, partly a result of the nation’s "tough on crime" policies of the 1980s and 1990s, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Louisiana is referred to as the "the world’s prison capital," with the highest incarceration rate of any country or U.S. state.
The Prison Policy Initiative drew the U.S. figures for correctional population counts from the 2010 U.S. Census, the group’s director, Peter Wagner, told us by phone.
According to the 2010 Census, Texas’ total correctional population that year was 375,392. Of that number, 267,405 of the people counted lived in adult correctional facilities. Facilities included in that definition were federal detention centers, federal and state prisons, local jails, military disciplinary barracks and jails as well as correctional residential facilities, like halfway houses. The rest were spread among juvenile facilities, nursing facilities and an "other" category.
Another U.S. indicator
But the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, which tracks data like this, reports lower state-by-state incarceration rates. In 2014, it says, Texas imprisoned 600 people for every 100,000 residents, including minors, and 816 per every 100,000 adults.
That’s because those numbers only include sentenced prisoners. They exclude prisoners who are unsentenced, prisoners serving less than one year, and local jail inmates. That limited definition, Wagner said, is why the Prison Policy Initiative turned to the 2010 Census to measure by correctional population count, getting 1,063 incarcerated per 100,000 people in Texas.
Upshot: Hinojosa’s source backs her up.
A Texas skeptic
Yet to our inquiry, a Texas criminal justice expert expressed doubts about global comparisons. Tony Fabelo of Austin, director of research for the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments, said by phone he was skeptical of incarceration numbers from undemocratic countries. "How do you know they’re counting in the right way? A lot of people are not counted, they just disappear, are arrested arbitrarily, never to be seen again. How do you count that?" he said.
Many politicians or advocates of changing U.S. incarceration policies cite the statement, rated True by PolitiFact Virginia in 2014, that the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its "known" prisoners. The caveat of "known" avoids the problem Fabelo references.
Fabelo suggested that making international comparisons is tricky even when comparing U.S. incarceration rates to those of other democracies. Incarceration rates are lower in the United Kingdom and France, for example, in part because those countries have lower rates of violent crime and crime involving weapons, Fabelo said. Putting incarceration rates side by side is missing part of the picture.
Next, we ran the figures for Russia and Iran past experts on those countries.
The Prison Policy Initiative’s international incarceration rates -- 475 per 100,000 in Russia and 284 per 100,000 in Iran -- were taken from the World Prison Population List, which says it gets its numbers in almost all cases from the national prison administration of the country at hand. The list is published by the World Prison Brief, a U.K.-based arm of the International Centre for Prison Studies.
Depending on the country, might that be shaky sourcing? We decided to check incarceration rates with an independent organization, turning first to Amnesty International where Europe and Central Asia press officer Clarisse Douaud suggested that for Russia numbers, we consider the Council of Europe Member States’ 2014 Penal Statistics. That report, conducted via questionnaire with the council’s 47 member states, says Russia incarcerates 467 people per 100,000 residents, which is fewer than what the initiative says.
Otherwise, a web search led us to query Jonathan Weiler, an adjunct assistant professor in global studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has published research on incarceration in Russia.
Weiler said by email that the initiative’s Russia rate, 475 per 100,000, looked accurate though he said it could understate realities, for instance leaving out citizens held in local police stations. In the 1990s, Weiler said, Russia had a much higher incarceration rate. He said that was before Russian President Vladimir Putin allowed a mass amnesty for lower-level offenders due to prison overcrowding.
To gauge the accuracy of the cited incarceration rate for Iran, we reached out to Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the nonprofit International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. By email, Ghaemi said the initiative’s declared rate of 284 people incarcerated per 100,000 residents tracked closely with his latest estimate, reached in March 2014, of 272 per 100,000. At that time, he said, Iranian officials announced the total prison population, and it was reported by Iran-based news agencies.
Those numbers, Ghaemi said, can be trusted. "The sensitive categories such as political prisoners are too few in the scheme of hundreds of thousands," to affect the total count, he told us.
Gina Hinojosa said: "Texas has a higher incarceration rate than Russia or Iran."
Based on numbers reported by Russia and Iran, that checks out. The statement also holds up whether we use the more expansive U.S. Census measure of Texas correctional populations, or the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ rate based only on sentenced prisoners.
Still, this assumes the figures for Iran and Russia are on the up and up and perfectly comparable to the Texas counts—and we’re not sure about that.
We rate this claim Mostly True.
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.