Crime and punishment on the Truth-O-Meter

Reporters question Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn about 10-year-old Sierra Guyton, who was shot while playing on a playground on May 21, 2014. Wounded in a crossfire between two men, the girl later died.
Reporters question Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn about 10-year-old Sierra Guyton, who was shot while playing on a playground on May 21, 2014. Wounded in a crossfire between two men, the girl later died.

In Milwaukee, the violent start to 2015 has rekindled longstanding debates over incarceration, equal justice, gun control and policing.

In recent years, PolitiFact has checked the accuracy of dozens of claims on these hot-button topics.

Given the explosion of homicides in Milwaukee early this year, and the Legislature’s move to end the two-day waiting period for handguns, we thought it was time to revisit several violence-related fact checks from the previous year.

Most bear on Milwaukee and Wisconsin; some are national in scope but provide context to what’s happening locally.

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn: In Wisconsin, a "second arrest for carrying pot is a felony," but a second or subsequent arrest "for carrying a gun illegally is a misdemeanor."  

Mostly True, we said. A second arrest for carrying marijuana is classified as a felony offense, although depending on the circumstances, only a ticket might be issued. And generally a first or subsequent offense for carrying a gun illegally is a misdemeanor -- although for some people, such as convicted felons, a first offense is a felony.

Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter: "More than 70 percent of American adults have committed a crime that could lead to imprisonment."

Based on a strictly technical reading of existing laws, the consensus among legal experts contacted by PunditFact was that the number is reasonable. Way more than a majority of Americans have done something in their lives that runs afoul of some law that includes jail or prison time as a potential punishment.

That said, experts acknowledged that the likelihood of arrest, prosecution or imprisonment is exceedingly low for many of Americans’ "crimes." The rating: Mostly True.

Democratic candidate for governor Mary Burke: Scott Walker cut funding to local governments in Wisconsin, contributing to the "second-largest increase in violent crime" in the Midwest.  

Walker did significantly reduce general-purpose shared revenue, which local governments use to help pay for a variety of functions, including law enforcement. And the increase in Wisconsin’s 2012 violent crime compared to the previous two years was higher than all but one other Midwestern state.

But Burke didn’t provide evidence that the shared revenue cuts significantly reduced funding for local law enforcement, nor evidence that funding reductions necessarily lead to an increase in violent crime. Our rating: Half True.

Facebook posts: Milwaukee "incarcerates 1.2% of white men" and has "incarcerated over 50% of black men in their 30s."

Half True, we found.

The way the claim is structured overstates the disparity, based on the university study it relies on.

On the first part of the claim (which should refer to Wisconsin, rather than Milwaukee), 1.2 percent of white men were incarcerated as of the latest census, versus 12.8 percent of black men. That is, at a given point in time.

The second part of the claim essentially quotes the study accurately -- more than 50 percent of black men in their 30s in Milwaukee County were or had been incarcerated over time. But there is no corresponding figure for white men.

Musician John Legend: "We live in the most incarcerated country in the world."

Mostly True, PunditFact concluded.

The United States far and away incarcerates more people than its peers, in terms of the portion of its population behind bars, despite having a comparable amount of crime.

But the small cluster of islands known as the Seychelles off mainland southeast Africa technically has a higher incarceration rate than the United States.

Wisconsin state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee): Polling shows that nearly 74 percent of National Rifle Association members "support requiring background checks for all gun sales."

True, we found.

The most recent national poll of NRA members that we could find, done in January 2013 by Johns Hopkins University, found that 73.7 percent of the members supported requiring background checks for all gun sales.

President Barack Obama: "Nearly one in five women in America has been a victim of rape or attempted rape."

PolitiFact National rated this Mostly True. A well-respected survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 19.3 percent of women reported experiences that are considered to be rape or attempted rape under the survey’s guidelines. There are other surveys, using a different methodology, that show lower rates of rape, but researchers say the data in the CDC study is at least as credible, if not more so.