“Like the majority of Americans, I grew up with an immediate family member incarcerated. The majority of Americans have an immediate family member who is either currently or formerly incarcerated, so I have that in common with the vast majority of people in this country.”

— San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin (D), in an interview on “Amanpour & Co.” on PBS, July 28

This is just the kind of factoid that catches our attention at The Fact Checker, and a reader suggested we dig into it.

Boudin is part of a new wave of Democratic prosecutors implementing more liberal policies at the city level on drug crimes and incarceration. He has been San Francisco’s district attorney, an office once held by Vice President Harris, since 2020. Critics of Boudin’s approach are organizing a recall campaign this year.

In an extended interview with journalist Michel Martin, Boudin defended his policies as more effective than those of Republican-run cities and spoke in personal terms about growing up with close family members in prison.

“My earliest memories are going through metal detectors and steel gates, just to see my parents, just to give them a hug,” he said. “I’ve now been visiting my father in prison for nearly 40 years.”

Have the “vast majority” of Americans faced a similar experience?

The Facts

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, even when adjusting for factors such as economic development and spending on social services, as numerous metrics show.

Boudin, 40, is a former public defender who has stopped prosecuting some offenses since taking office as San Francisco district attorney. He has been open about the story of his parents, who were both incarcerated while he was growing up. His father remains in prison.

“The central event in Boudin’s life happened when he was fourteen months old, in October, 1981, when his parents, who had been affiliated with the Weather Underground, took part in an armed robbery of a Brink’s truck, organized by members of the Black Liberation Army. Two police officers and a security guard were killed,” the New Yorker reported in a recent profile of Boudin. “It was an infamous case, in part because of the role of Chesa’s parents and another participant, Judith Clark — they were white graduates of prestigious colleges and parents of young children, who seemed, by conventional standards, to have quite a lot to lose.”

A month after taking office, Boudin announced that prosecutors would no longer seek charges for contraband found during “pretextual” traffic stops and would not seek to lengthen jail sentences with “status enhancements,” such as those for third-strike offenses or gang membership. Boudin also has expanded the use of pretrial diversion programs and has moved to end the use of cash bail. Slightly more than a year after he took office, the San Francisco jail population had fallen by nearly half, to 756 people, according to the Appeal.

On PBS, Boudin said the “majority” or “vast majority” of Americans currently have or previously had an immediate family member in jail or prison. His claim is taken from a 2019 study led by Peter K. Enns, a Cornell University professor of government and public policy.

The team of researchers surveyed more than 4,000 people for a study designed for FWD.us, a nonprofit organization launched in 2013 by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to advocate for looser immigration laws. The tech industry lobbying group has since broadened its goals to include criminal justice reform.

The study is notable for its large sample size and groundbreaking findings, showing that the rate of having an incarcerated family member was much higher in the United States than previously estimated.

“The data show that 45 percent of Americans have ever had an immediate family member incarcerated,” the study says. “The incarceration of an immediate family member was most prevalent for blacks (63 percent) but common for whites (42 percent) and Hispanics (48 percent) as well. College graduates had a lower risk of having a family member incarcerated, but the risk for black college graduates was comparatively high. The most common form of family member incarceration was the incarceration of a sibling.”

The overall rate of Americans who have had an immediate family member behind bars, 45 percent, is remarkably high but not quite a “majority” and far from a “vast majority.”

As The Washington Post summarized it when the Cornell study was released: “Nearly 1 in 2 adults in the United States has seen an immediate family member go to jail or prison for at least one night. … One in 7 adults [14 percent] has had an immediate family member behind bars for at least a year; for 1 in 34 adults [3 percent] that relative has been behind bars a decade or longer.”

A national poll from 2015 produced lower estimates, although the sample size was about half as large and the comparison is not apples-to-apples. “A majority of African-Americans say they or a close friend or family member have been incarcerated (55%), significantly higher than the share among whites (36%) or Hispanics (39%),” according to the CNN and Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 1,951 adults. Note that this poll asked about close friends and not just family members.

Rachel Marshall, a spokeswoman for Boudin, said “the DA was referring to a study by criminal justice non-profit FWD.us and Cornell University that found that 64% of U.S. adults have had an immediate or extended family member spend time in jail or prison and described the situation nationwide as an ‘incarceration crisis.’”

Marshall is combining “immediate” and “extended” family members to get to 64 percent. Boudin referred only to immediate family on PBS, and the rate for that group is 45 percent.

It’s a subtle but important difference. For children, having an incarcerated parent or sibling would disrupt family life perhaps much more than having an extended relative (say, an uncle) in prison.

Researchers defined immediate family in their study as “parents; brothers; sisters; children; and your current spouse, current romantic partner, or anyone else you have had a child with” and “step, foster, and adoptive family members.” They defined extended relatives as “family members you feel close with,” including “grandparents, grandchildren, cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, godparents, mothers-in-law and fathers-in-law, sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law, and other family members.”

We asked Enns to weigh in, and he was careful to distinguish both groups in his email response: “You are correct that our research found that close to half (45%) of adults have had an immediate family member who spent at least a night in prison or jail at some point in the family member’s life. 64% have had an immediate or extended family member who spent at least a night in prison or jail at some point.”

Asked about the flub in Boudin’s PBS interview, Marshall pointed to the headline of a Forbes article — “Over Half Of Americans Have Had A Family Member Incarcerated” — and said “that is how the study was covered.”

The article itself makes clear that the 64 percent figure applies to “immediate or extended” family.

The Pinocchio Test

Boudin said the “majority” or “vast majority” of Americans currently have or previously had an “immediate family member” behind bars.

The study he was citing backs him up to an extent — it found the rate was 45 percent overall, and 63 percent for Black Americans — but it’s just shy of a majority of Americans.

However, the researchers also asked about extended “family members you feel close with.” When including those relatives, 64 percent of Americans, or nearly two-thirds, have had family in jail or prison.

It’s always a good idea for policymakers to read the underlying research, so errors like this can be avoided. For a light stretching of the facts, Boudin gets One Pinocchio.

One Pinocchio

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