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Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder arrives on stage during the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Analysis

Fact-checking the Democrats

A closer look at crime rates and how people really feel about police.

The view of America from the stage of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia could not have been more different from the lawless dystopia described at Donald Trump’s show in Cleveland a week earlier. The Democrats portrayed a nation more resilient, hopeful challenged, to be sure, but brought together by its challenges and still a beacon to the world. The difference was acute on issues of crime and justice. The Republicans offered a narrative of rising crime and a war on police, abetted by the protesters of Black Lives Matter. The Democrats spoke of crime rates at “record lows,” and offered a come-together approach to urban violence. On Tuesday the convention featured the bereaved mothers of black lives that ended in police custody, speaking less in anger than in resolve to unite behind the unfinished project of racial equality. On Thursday night the speakers included families of police killed in the line of duty and a moment of silence for fallen cops.

Like the Republicans, the Democrats built their storyline on assertions that were checkable. And The Marshall Project checked those that fell into our area, criminal justice.

“We will reform our criminal justice system from end-to-end, and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve." — Hillary Clinton

We can’t fact-check the future, of course, but it is worth noting that Clinton has an ambitious and very specific agenda of criminal justice reforms posted on her website. Across her career, her professed views on issues of crime and punishment have evolved. You can read a full run-down of Clinton’s record on criminal justice, as a lawyer, first lady, Senator and presidential candidate, here.

“At a time when our justice system is out of balance, when one in three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes, and when black defendants in the federal system receive sentences 20 percent longer than their white peers, we need a president who will end this policy of over-incarceration.” — Former Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday

While it’s true that black men are disproportionately incarcerated, the assertion that one in three black men will end up behind bars is an outdated statistic. This oft-repeated figure originates from a report issued by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2003. That analysis did predict that one in three black men would likely go to prison (the data didn’t include jail populations) in their lifetime, but it also declared this to be true only if 2001 incarceration rates remained unchanged. They have not.

Incarceration rates for black men have since fallen, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics has not yet updated its one-in-three projection using more recent data. According to annual prison population reports, in 2001, there were 3,535 black male prisoners for every 100,000 black male residents, and that number has steadily declined since then, hitting a low of 2,724 per 100,000 in 2014. Politifact weighed the data last year and, perhaps generously, rated it “mostly true.”

Holder’s statement about black defendants receiving longer sentences is true, but the figure he cited is a bit more complicated than his description of it. That statistic came from a U.S. Sentencing Commission report that was released in 2013, which found that in the federal system, black people had 19.5 percent longer sentences than whites, but that number included the length of probation sentences. When only prison sentences are considered, the disparity drops slightly, to 14.4 percent.

“We cut the federal prison population and the crime rate — together — for the first time in more than 40 years…. Violent crime has gone down since President Obama took office.” — Eric Holder

This is not the first time that Holder and Obama have made an argument that under their administration, both crime and incarceration have fallen for the first time in four decades.

This claim is true. Crime ebbed and flowed from 1970 through 1990, though it was generally on the rise; since the early 1990s, it has been steadily on the decline. Conversely, from the 1970s through the beginning of the Obama administration, federal incarceration rates increased every single year. In other words, even though crime rates have been dropping for 25 years now, incarceration had not been falling with it.

That changed in 2013, the fifth year of the Obama administration, when crime remained on the decline while the federal prison population finally decreased, too. In 2014, the crime rate and the federal prison rate fell together again, marking two years of the trend.

Holder’s other assertion, that violent crime has gone down since the president took office, is also true. According to the FBI’s most recent crime statistics, published in December 2015, the number of violent crimes (homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault) in the United States fell by 229,078 — or 16 percent — from 2008 to 2014.

One caveat is that the decline is part of a longer trend; there is no evidence that the continuing drop in violent crime rates during the Obama years has been any more significant than it was through the late Clinton years and the Bush administration. Also, as Donald Trump and others have repeatedly pointed out, the crime rate may have ticked back up slightly in 2015, though the FBI’s finalized statistics for last year are not available yet.

“She fought, as a senator, against sentencing disparities and racial profiling.” — Eric Holder

In 2007, Hillary Clinton co-sponsored legislation to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine and the five-year mandatory minimum for first-time crack possession. The bill died. In 2010, Obama signed legislation that reduced the disparity from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1. Clinton has pledged during her campaign to eliminate this disparity completely and make it retroactive.

Clinton was a co-sponsor on the End Racial Profiling Act several times while in Congress. The act would have created a federal ban on racial profiling by law enforcement, required agencies to collect data on routine stops and investigations, and allowed the Department of Justice to withhold grant money from agencies that continue discriminatory policing. It never came to a vote.

“Crime rates have been falling for decades, but research shows that public trust in police is eroding in too many places.” — Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay

A Gallup poll last month found that 56 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police. (Only 23 percent said the same about the criminal justice system). In some cities, however, that confidence is not as strong. The New York Police Department has a guide on its website called “Trust: Bridging The Police/Community Divide .” The 19-page document highlights survey data from 2014 showed that “80 percent of New York City residents said they feel safe, yet only 50 percent said the department is doing a very good or good job.” And “while only 12 percent of white respondents to a January 2015 Quinnipiac poll said that they worry about being a victim of police brutality, 52 percent of black respondents and 38 percent of Hispanic respondents said they did worry about this possibility.”

Pew Research Center has consistently surveyed blacks and whites about police relations, and found that few blacks have faith in local cops.

“Then in our last year in law school, Hillary kept up this work. She went to South Carolina to see why so many young African-American boys, I mean, young teenagers, were being jailed for years with adults in men's prisons. And she filed a report on that, which led to some changes, too.” — Former president Bill Clinton on Tuesday

After interning at what would become the Children's Defense Fund during the summer of 1972, Clinton formally joined the fledgling children's advocacy and research organization in 1973, just after graduating from Yale Law School. In her memoir “Living History,” Clinton wrote about investigating children held in adult jails and prisons.

In South Carolina I helped investigate the conditions under which juveniles were incarcerated in adult jails. Some of the fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds I interviewed were in jail for minor transgressions. Some were serious offenders. Either way, none of them should have been sharing cells with hard-core adult criminals, who could prey on them or further educated them in criminality. CDF led an effort to separate out juveniles and provide them protection and faster adjudication.

We haven’t found evidence of Clinton’s work in this area. During those years, her works seems to have centered on education. For her research, Clinton went undercover in Dothan, Ala., to collect evidence of President Richard Nixon’s failure to enforce school integration. She also knocked on doors in New Bedford, Mass., to contribute to a Children’s Defense Fund report on the nearly two million children who were not enrolled in school. A 1976 report from the fund, titled “Children in Adult Jails”, however, does not list Clinton among its contributors.

The fund’s founder, Marian Wright Edelman, would later criticize Clinton for her husband’s 1996 welfare reform bill, publishing an open letter in the Washington Post calling the reforms “a tragic step backward.” (Edelman has since appeared in a campaign video for Clinton’s presidential bid.)

Clinton has published other material on the rights of children, though none of her scholarly work focused specifically on “young African American boys” being jailed in adult prisons. In these other works, Clinton argued that children should be extended the same rights as adults, and that policymakers should recognize “certain unique needs and interests of children as legally enforceable rights.

"Look at what happened in Dallas after the assassinations of 5 brave police officers. Police Chief David Brown asked the community to support his force, maybe even join them. And you know how the community responded? Nearly 500 people applied in just 12 days." — Hillary Clinton, on Thursday.

This is true, according to the Dallas Police Department. According to a post on its Facebook page, the department received 467 job applications in the 12 days following the July 7 shooting — a 344 percent increase over the same period the month before. (Before the shooting, applications had been so low that academy classes were canceled.)

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified when Hillary Clinton began working for the Children's Defense Fund. She graduated from Yale Law School and started working at the fund in 1973. She spent the summer of 1972 working at the organization that later became the Children's Defense Fund.