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What Obama didn’t say about crime and incarceration

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“Surely we can agree it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.”

–President Obama, State of the Union address, Jan. 20, 2015

State of the Union speeches are difficult to check because they are carefully crafted over time, and rarely contain major inaccuracies.

But there often is context missing, and this claim was another example of a seemingly simple figure lifted from a complex issue. (The Fact Checker live-checked several claims for context during the speech.) This claim was the only reference to the state of the American criminal justice system in President Obama’s speech.

Is Obama’s claim about the decline in crime and incarceration rates since the 1970s correct? And is context is missing here?

The Facts

Obama was referring to figures first touted by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. In a September 2014 speech, Holder called the decreases in both rates “nothing less than historic” and a marker that represents a “paradigm shift” in how the United States approaches criminal justice issues.

Obama’s claim was more general than Holder’s, but they made the same point. Obama said: “for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together.” Holder announced during his September 2014 speech: “Since President Obama took office, both overall crime and overall incarceration have decreased by approximately 10 percent.  This is the first time these two critical markers have declined together in more than 40 years.”

The FBI Uniform Crime Report, which compiles data from law enforcement agencies, shows the violent crime rate decreased by 15 percent since Obama took office in 2009. In 2011, the violent crime rate was the lowest it had been since 1971.

The national violent crime rate was 396 offenses per 100,000 people in 1971, and steadily increased until it peaked in 1991, at 758 offenses per 100,000. Then it began decreasing again, even though the overall population continued to grow. In 2013, the violent crime rate was 367.9 offenses per 100,000 people. The crime-rate decrease under the Obama administration is part of an ongoing trend over the past 20-plus years.

The overall rate for federal and state prison incarceration also decreased during the same time period. It was the first time both rates decreased since the early 1970s, records show. The key word is the “overall” rate. There are many ways to measure incarceration trends — for example: jail versus prison population, state prison versus federal prison population, and imprisoned population versus those under correctional supervision.

Since Holder used overall state and federal prison incarceration rates, The Fact Checker analyzed the rate of prisoners sentenced to state and federal institutions, per 100,000 of the population. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics annual reports, the rate of state and federal prison incarcerations increased starting in 1973, then began decreasing around 2007. Since Obama took office, this rate has decreased by 4.8 percent. With jail populations included, the incarceration rate decreased even more — 9 percent decrease from 2009 through 2013.

Note that Obama uses crime and incarceration rates, not actual population numbers. The rate may decrease from year to year, but it does not always mean there were fewer people in prison. In 2013, the total number of prisoners in state and federal facilities increased over the 2012 total for the first increase since 2009. But because of the general population increase, the rate still decreased.

Despite the recent decrease in incarceration rates, there has been a steady increase in state and federal prison populations since the 1970s. BJS reports show the 2013 rate of people sentenced to state and federal institutions was an increase of almost 400 percent from the rate in 1971. (In comparison, the 2013 crime rate is lower than it was in 1971.) This graphic illustrates the decades-long population increase:

The president listed accomplishments during his first six years in office. But some of the state-level changes that led to these rate decreases were underway or in place before 2009. (This anomaly, for example: California prisons had been overpopulated for a decade until the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 mandated the state to reduce its prison population.)

Not all states saw the change. Research from the Pew Public Safety Performance Project shows 60 percent of states saw decreases in both rates between 2008 to 2013, and the actual percentages varied.

The decrease in both rates is significant because it negates the long-held belief that crime would decrease at the expense of increased incarcerations, criminal justice experts said. But experts also were quick to warn: while it seems simple to connect the two rates, there is not as direct a relationship as some think. Incarceration rate climbed steadily since the 1970s despite the fluctuations in crime rates during the same period, noted Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project.

The Pinocchio Test

Consistent with the nature of State of the Union claims, Obama’s figures on crime and overall incarceration rates were accurate. But what he didn’t say in reference to this topic is just as important. For example, the actual 2013 prison population increased for the first time since 2009, despite the rate decrease. While both rates decreased nationally, 40 percent of states did not experience the simultaneous change in 2008-2013. The president receives One Pinocchio for missing context.

One Pinocchio

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