FACT CHECK: Beto O’Rourke Says 40 Percent Of Iowa’s Incarcerated Population Is Black

Brad Sylvester | Fact Check Editor

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said during a CNN town hall that 40 percent of Iowa’s incarcerated population is black, despite making up only 3 percent of the state’s population.

Verdict: False

While Iowa’s incarcerated population is disproportionately black, a 2018 report from the state’s Department of Human Rights estimated that around 25 percent of those incarcerated are black, not 40 percent. About 4 percent of the population in Iowa is black, according to Census Bureau data.

Fact Check:

O’Rourke mentioned the stat while laying out his plan for criminal justice reform, which includes eliminating private prisons and ending the cash bail system, among other policy changes. O’Rourke said the current criminal justice system has disproportionately affected black Americans, using the prison population in Iowa as an example.

“I was talking to somebody in Iowa, Tavis Hall, who is an expert on this. He said African Americans comprise 3 percent of Iowa’s population, 40 percent of the incarcerated population in this state,” he said May 21.

O’Rourke wasn’t far off the mark with the first stat – in July 2018, 3.8 percent of Iowa’s population were black or African American alone, according to Census Bureau data.

However, the second figure is incorrect. Looking at state prisons, Iowa does have one of the highest rates of incarceration for blacks in the country, but a report from the state’s Department of Human Rights estimates that about 24.5 percent of those incarcerated in fiscal year 2018 were black, not the 40 percent O’Rourke cited. The figure has decreased slightly over the last decade.

Similarly, the Prison Policy Initiative released a 2014 report that found that 23 percent of the state’s incarcerated population was black, relying on 2010 Census Bureau data. (This figure accounts for all types of correctional facilities in the state, including local jails.)

And an April report published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics concluded that 2,183 out of 9,024 prisoners held in state or federal facilities at the end of 2017 were black, about 24 percent.

O’Rourke cited Tavis Hall, executive director at Experience Waterloo, a nonprofit that promotes tourism in Waterloo, Iowa, as the source of the figure. When contacted by The Daily Caller News Foundation, however, Hall said the 40 percent statistic was incorrect.

“I did speak with Mr. ORourke [sic] in early May about a slew of issues facing Iowa and the country, including the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans,” he said in an email to TheDCNF. “We talked about the rate of incarceration, student loans and other impacts of incarceration, as well as other issues of small town blackness in America. During that conversation, I did reference 40% incarceration rate. Those numbers are specific to Black Hawk County, where I reside. Unfortunately, I did unintentionally conflate the state number and the Black Hawk County statistic.”

The Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Office reported that 37 percent of jail inmates in 2017 were black, whereas the black community makes up about 10 percent of the population in that county.

In response to the disproportionate incarceration of blacks, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have advocated for, among other policy changes, the decriminalization of drug possession across the state and expanded social services for mental health and substance abuse.

“Our state must take major steps to create a criminal justice system that is fair and impartial for all Iowans, no matter the color of their skin,” Mark Stringer, executive director of the ACLU of Iowa, said in a statement to TheDCNF.

Lynn Hicks, the communications director for the Iowa attorney general’s office, acknowledged the disparity, but emphasized steps the state has taken to address it.

“We don’t dispute that there has been a disparate impact on minorities in Iowa, and African-Americans in particular. However, few states have done as much as Iowa to address this disparity in recent years. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office has spearheaded reform efforts beginning in 2014,” he told TheDCNF in an email.

He pointed to multiple laws passed in recent years, including one that allows some nonviolent drug offenders to become eligible for parole after serving at least half of the mandatory minimum sentence, and another that allows, subject to certain conditions, a misdemeanor offense to be expunged after a given period of time.

O’Rourke’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

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Brad Sylvester

Fact Check Editor
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