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Archived: Rodney Ellis fact-check

Editor's note: This is an archived version of a fact-check we have since corrected and updated. Read the corrected version here.


"Harris County’s overreliance on the inefficient and ineffective use of mass incarceration as a means of dealing with low-level and non-violent offenses continues to result in some of the highest jailing and incarceration rates in the U.S. and the world."

— Rodney Ellis on Thursday, May 19th, 2016 in press release

When a Washington, D.C. advocacy group filed a lawsuit against Harris County’s bail system, it got state lawmakers talking, sometimes over each other.

About this statement:

Published: Monday, June 13th, 2016 at 5:25 p.m.

Researched by: Fauzeya Rahman

Edited by: Matt Schwartz

Subjects: Criminal Justice

The suit, filed in May 2016 by the nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law, alleged that hundreds of offenders are jailed for minor offenses every day because they cannot afford to make bail. The group says that since 2015, it’s filed 10 class action challenges to money bail systems in eight states.

The suit led state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, to issue a press release on May 19, 2016, sharing his personal reaction to the suit. Ellis, who also seeks a Harris County commissioner seat, criticized the county’s "overreliance on mass incarceration," also saying the punishment of low-level and nonviolent offenses led to Harris County "having one of the highest jailing and incarceration rates in the United States and the world."

We’re familiar with incarceration rates. In August 2015, PolitiFact Virginia found Mostly True a claim the U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate--meaning the greatest share of residents behind bars. In March 2016, we rated Mostly True a claim that Texas has a higher incarceration rate than Russia or Iran.

So, is it possible that Harris County, the third most populous in the nation, also has an incarceration rate higher than the country overall?

In response to Ellis’ claim, Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack told Ellis to "shut up" about incarceration rates, stating that Harris County doesn’t "even come close to even leading Texas in our incarceration rates."

The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines an incarceration rate as the number of inmates per 100,000 residents held in state or federal prisons or local jails. To get this figure for each county, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards divided the number of inmates by county populations as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2015.  

To our request for the senator’s factual backup, an Ellis aide, David Edmonson emailed a spreadsheet listing incarceration rates for the five most populous counties in the state, based on data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Edmonson used "new receive" data, which shows the newly-admitted inmate population. Harris County had a rate of 234 inmates per 100,000, while the next four counties had rates between 152 and 233 people per 100,000.

Edmonson wrote: "The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and Texas has the seventh highest incarceration rate in the country. Harris County, meanwhile, has the highest prison and state jail ‘new receives’ rate of the five largest counties in the state, as determined by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (see attached). That makes Harris County the largest driver in incarcerating Texans.

"In other words," Edmonson said, "Harris County sends the most people to prison and state jail - in the state with the seventh-highest incarceration - in the country with the highest incarceration rate."

Checking with TDCJ

With Edmonson’s reply in our pocket, we wanted to verify figures on our own. First, we checked with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, to see how Harris County compares with other counties in Texas. We looked at the TDCJ latest annual statistical report which documents newly admitted people (receives), the on-hand population which shows a facility’s total inmate population, as well as releases and departures, by county. The data reflect populations in prison, state jail and substance abuse felony punishment facilities. The commission’s incarceration rate report reflects the average daily population of county jail inmates, based on a 12-month average of one-day snapshots, taken the first day of the month.

We spoke with Jason Clark by phone, the director of TDCJ, to ask what the different charts represented in the agency’s report, and which would be most accurate for reflecting the total incarcerated population. Clark explained that the on-hand population is the best measure, as "new receives" only show the newly admitted population and doesn’t reflect all inmates. He added one caveat — the counties listed show where a person was convicted, not necessarily where that person lived before or where that person is being detained.

Among all counties in 2014, according to TDCJ data, Harris County didn’t have the state’s No. 1 incarceration rate, actually ranking 138th in the state with a rate of 587 inmates per 100,000 residents. Kenedy County in South Texas had the highest rate, at 2,948 inmates per 100,000 residents.

For county jail incarceration rates between June 2015 and May 2016, Harris County placed 175th in the state, with a rate of 195.8 inmates per 100,000 residents. Kenedy County again came in first with a rate of 1,474 inmates per 100,000 residents.

Edmonson wrote in his email "once you get below Fort Bend County, you’re looking at counties that are less than 15% the size of Harris. If we’re doing an apples-to-apples comparison, it’s hard to ignore those statistics," he said.

But, with everything calculated on a per capita basis, per 100,000 people, wouldn’t this make comparisons accurate?

We checked with two independent criminal justice experts for guidance. Peter Wagner is the director of the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that does research with the aim to "expose the broader harm of mass criminalization," according to its website. His group studies incarceration rates closely and often is called upon to explain these figures. Michele Dietch has worked on criminal justice issues since the late 1980s. She’s a senior lecturer in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at  Austin

"Using rates is often more informative. It’s much easier to make meaningful comparisons with," said Wagner via phone interview. "Sometimes you want numbers. The reality is, numbers are easier to understand."

Wagner said his nonprofit excludes countries with populations of less than 500,000 when calculating rates for its global report, which compares state incarceration rates as if they are independent countries for global comparison.  According to the report, Texas had an incarceration rate of 1,063 per 100,000, the fifth highest in the world. Louisiana was number one, with a rate of 1,341 inmates.

Dietch told us by phone that she sees value in both per capita rates and raw numbers. Per capita rates, she said, are the best way to make comparisons because they adjust for what can be vast differences in population.

"Per capita rates equalize comparisons across jurisdictions of different sizes," she wrote in a follow-up email. "Otherwise, big jurisdictions will always look worse in terms of absolute numbers."  

But, there’s value in looking at absolute numbers, since jurisdictions contributing the largest numbers of inmates will have "by far the biggest impact on the system," she said.

That is, rural Kenedy County may have the state’s highest incarceration rate and may be sending a high share of its residents into the criminal justice system, Dietch said, but its share of all state prisoners remains negligible.

For example, at the prison and state jail levels, Kenedy County had a total of 12 inmates, while Harris County had a total of 26,647 inmates.

"You need to look at both to understand," she said.  

She explained one of the main reasons smaller counties have higher incarceration rates is due to a lack of resources to provide alternatives in that community, such as support programs, substance abuse treatment or electronic monitoring. People end up in prison or jail because there isn’t much else as an alternative. Places like Harris County have more options to keep people out of jail and prison, she said.

Harris County doesn’t have the highest rate of incarceration in the state, Dietch summed up, but it’s a large contributor to the state prison system.

Our ruling

Ellis said Harris County has some of the highest jailing and incarceration rates in the United States and the world.

As the most populous county in the Lone Star State, Harris County puts more people behind bars at the county jail and state lockups than any other in Texas. For comparison sake, however, experts and law enforcement officials typically cite incarceration rates, defined as the number of inmates compared to the population.

You can argue whether Harris County should be compared to counties with populations that are a tiny fraction of that. However, it was that very comparison metric – incarceration rate -- that Ellis chose to make his point.

And by that measure, he was not even close.

We rate this claim False.

FALSE – The statement is not accurate.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

Incarceration Rate Report, Texas Commission on Jail Standards

Statistical Report, Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Fact Check, Gina Hinojosa, vowing reforms, says Texas has higher incarceration rate than Russia or Iran, PolitiFact Texas, March 23, 2016

Fact Check, Webb says U.S. has world's highest incarceration rate, PolitiFact, Aug. 10, 2015

Fact Check, Bernie Sanders: The United States has 'more people in jail than any other country on Earth', PolitiFact, Oct. 13, 2015

Press Release, Sen. Ellis reacts to lawsuit against Harris County’s broken criminal justice system, May 19, 2016

List, Federal Bureau of Prisons Locations

List, Texas Counties: 2015 Population Estimates from the U. S. Census Bureau

Article, Sen. Ellis responds to commissioner's comments saying he should 'shut up', Houston Chronicle,  May 26, 2016

Article, Candidates wage nontraditional campaigns for Harris County commissioner, Houston Chronicle, May 21, 2016

Phone interview, Michele Dietch, UT Austin, June 8, 2016

Phone interview, Jason Clark, TDCJ, May 25, 2016

Phone interview, Peter Wagner, PPI, June 9, 2016

Email interview and spreadsheet, David Edmonson, Deputy Chief of Staff, Rodney Ellis, May 24, 2016

Report, States of Incarceration: The Global Context, PPI