EDITOR’S NOTE, March 22, 2019: We initially rated this statement Half True, in an article we have archived here. However, we reviewed our findings after the Washington Post Fact Checker subsequently noticed problems with the Vera Institute’s data. We have changed our rating to False.
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. Now, the scrutiny is coming for Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who served as county attorney of Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, between 1999 and 2007.
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 initially rated Klobuchar’s statement as Half True, based on data from the Vera Institute of Justice, which collects data on criminal justice topics. However, the Washington Post Fact Checker subsequently noticed problems with the institute’s data for jails in the county, so we took a new look.
After this review, we concluded that the data for jails is too compromised for us to rely on it. However, other data does show a decline in African-American incarceration on her watch, though the scale is smaller.
The Vera 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. 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.
Keep in mind that this is the data that we (and Klobuchar) saw initially looking into this question; shortly, we’ll explain why some of the data is problematic. Keep your eye on the big drop between 2000 and 2001.
The problem with this data only becomes clear from the underlying figures. Between 2000 and 2001, the percentage of jail inmates who were classified as "unknown" roughly tripled to about 50 percent. This makes comparisons for pre-2001 data and post-2001 data problematic. It seems reasonable to think a change in classification accounted for the big drop in African-American jail incarceration.
In our initial article, Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, had characterized the 70 percent decline as substantial. When we showed him the more complete data, however, he withdrew that assessment.
"Vera has been around for 50 years and is viewed as a very credible source, so I generally assume that their data is correct," he said. But seeing the full data, he said, "it's clear that there should have been a qualification attached."
Mauer said that Klobuchar’s instinct to rely on Vera Institute data is understandable, but he added that, given her years of experience as a prosecutor, "she probably should have questioned the figures before speaking out."
Mauer recommended that we discount the jail data entirely. So here’s what else we found.
That still leaves another set of data that does not appear to be compromised: the one for 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.
We confirmed with Jasmine Heiss, outreach director for the Vera Institute, that the prison data comes from a different source than the jail data.
In our chart, 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.
The rate for African-American prisoners in Hennepin County fell by about 12 percent, and that’s bigger than the decline for the nation as a whole, at 7.6 percent.
And a second data point — prison admissions — shows a sharper decline, 22 percent.
Such a decline "is hardly trivial and certainly represents progress, even if we can't fully identify the causal factors," Mauer said. The trend line for African-American prison incarceration, he said, was "clearly going in a good direction" during Klobuchar’s tenure.
Heiss, of the Vera Institute, said decrease in African-American prison admissions "is significant on its face." She noted that the drop occurred as the number of working age African-American people in the overwhelmingly white county increased, affecting the denominator in the calculation. But for the purposes of our analysis, the bottom line is that the rate did in fact fall.
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.
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 for any declines.
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."
Klobuchar’s statement hinged largely on unreliable data for jails.
The only credible data we can use, for prisons, shows the African-American incarceration rate fell by 12 percent, and the admission rate fell by 22 percent. That's a drop, but both are well below 65 percent.
Experts said that Klobuchar’s policies could have contributed to the decline, though other factors beyond her control could have made a difference as well.
We rate the statement False.