Public sentiment about criminal justice policy has evolved in recent years, putting pressure on the former prosecutors who are running for president to answer for their records in the judicial system, particularly about any racial disparities in arrests and sentencing.
We previously reviewed the criminal justice record of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who served as both the district attorney for San Francisco and the state attorney general for California.
Here, we’ll look at the record of another presidential candidate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who served as county attorney of Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, between 1999 and 2007.
CNN’s Jake Tapper brought up the issue during an interview with Klobuchar on March 17, 2019.
Tapper: "A study from around that time, from during your time heading that office, by one of your predecessors, then with the Council on Crime and Justice, found wide racial disparities in the justice system at the time you took office. It preceded you, but they issued this report during your time there. Minnesota Public Radio wrote, ‘The ratio of blacks sent to Minnesota prisons compared to whites is the highest in the country. People who are black account for 70 percent of Hennepin County's drug cases. If convicted, they are sentenced to time behind bars at three times the rate of whites guilty of the same offense.’ Now, that was data from the start of your term. When you were the county attorney, did you do anything to try to improve these broad, stark racial disparities? And, if so, what did you do?"
Klobuchar: "Of course I did, Jake. In fact, if you look at the data, you will see there was a 65 percent decrease in incarceration of African-Americans when you go from the beginning of my term to the end."
We found that Klobuchar’s statement is nearly right for jails but wrong for prisons; both are forms of incarceration. As we were looking into this question, Klobuchar’s campaign independently contacted CNN to clarify aspects of the claim.
Data on African-Americans in Hennepin County jails
To evaluate Klobuchar’s assertion, we looked at data from the Vera Institute of Justice, which collects data on criminal justice topics. Their database includes historical data on incarceration rates in a wide variety of jurisdictions around the country. Hennepin County is one of them. The data includes both jails and prisons. As we’ll see, the incarceration rate dropped significantly for jails but not nearly as much for prisons.
On air with Tapper, Klobuchar didn’t specify which metric she was using. After the interview aired, Klobuchar’s staff contacted CNN to clarify that she was referring to jails.
Here’s a chart comparing incarceration rates for African-Americans in Hennepin County (in shades of red) with incarceration rates for African-Americans in the United States as a whole (in shades of blue). The "rate" used in the data is the number of African-Americans who are incarcerated per 100,000 residents between the ages of 15 and 64.
First, let’s look at the heavier shades of blue and red that are grouped toward the bottom of the chart.
The dark red line shows the African-American incarceration rate in Hennepin County jails. When Klobuchar became county attorney in 1999, the African-American incarceration rate was 946 per 100,000. In 2006, her last full year in the office, the rate had fallen to 287 per 100,000.
The pair of black lines show the scope of the decline over that period -- a full 70 percent.
It’s worth adding that the decline in Hennepin County wasn’t simply part of a national decline. Over the same period, the national trend line -- shown in dark blue in this chart -- was essentially static. In other words, the decline in Hennepin County under Klobuchar was notable.
When we showed the data to Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, he said that "the decline in the jail rate (under Klobuchar) is quite substantial."
What about the prison population?
Jails generally hold people awaiting trial or serving a sentence of less than one year, often a misdemeanor. Prisons, by contrast, generally hold felony offenders whose sentences are one year or longer.
The lighter blue line at the top is the national trend for African-American incarceration in prisons, while the lighter red line shows the trend for Hennepin County.
For prison populations, the decline in Hennepin County wasn’t as dramatic as it was for jails. The rate fell, but only by 14 percent.
That said, the drop in Hennepin County’s African-American incarceration rate was still almost twice as large as the decline for the nation as a whole.
Does Klobuchar deserve credit for the drop?
The county attorney can have an impact on incarceration trends by the policies they set, Mauer said, although he added that other factors can come into play, too.
The factors can include "changes in policing practices, such as making fewer arrests in cases of drug possession), as well as increased availability of treatment and diversion programs," Mauer said. Some of these changes might stem from actions taken by state legislators, the governor, or other state or local officials, rather than the county attorney.
Still, county attorneys like Klobuchar have a degree of discretion over several important factors affecting the incarceration rate, including their stance on demanding money bail, their willingness to negotiate plea deals that do not include jail time, and their desire to utilize diversion programs or drug courts for first-time offenders.
"Overall, it's much more likely that a combination of factors produced these outcomes, though certainly prosecutors have a role to play," Mauer said.
What policies did Klobuchar advance?
So what policies does Klobuchar point to during her tenure that would have made a difference? She cited several during the interview with Tapper:
• "The first is to diversify the office and to add more people of color to the ranks of prosecutors. And I did that."
• "The second was to look at how we were handling drug court and make sure that we were doing it in a way that wasn't racist. And you can always do better. I can tell you, you learn in retrospect, when you look back, things you can do better."
• "The third thing was to up our focus on white-collar crimes. Things that are committed in the boardrooms are just as bad as things that are committed with a crowbar if someone is trying to break in a house."
• "I was one of the first prosecutors in the country to work with The Innocence Project to do a DNA review on our cases, to do something differently when it came to eyewitness identification."
• "And then, finally, we had videotaped interrogations in Minnesota. We were one of the only states that did it at the time to make sure that suspects were treated fairly, Miranda rights were being read."
But David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., who also teaches law at Hamline and the University of Minnesota, cautioned against giving Klobuchar too much credit.
On Klobuchar’s watch, racial disparities in the Minneapolis-area justice system remained significant, he said. Incarceration rates, he added, don’t tell the whole story of racial disparities in the justice system; a fuller picture would also include probation rates.
"I was teaching undergraduate criminal justice classes at the time she was county attorney and there was no indication that she was cognizant of the racial implications of her policies," Schultz said.
Klobuchar’s tough-on-crime approach was common among prosecutors everywhere at the time, even among Democrats. That has only changed in Democratic circles relatively recently.
Klobuchar said that during her tenure as county attorney in Minnesota, "there was a 65 percent decrease in incarceration of African-Americans."
The African-American incarceration rate in Hennepin County declined substantially for jails but not nearly as much for prisons. Experts said that Klobuchar’s policies could have been a reason for the drop, though they added that other factors beyond her control could have made a difference as well.
We rate the statement Half True.