When Texas adopted a near-total ban on abortion in 2021, the measure did not include exceptions for victims of rape or incest.
Gov. Greg Abbott defended this decision during a September news conference after he was asked: “Why force a rape victim to carry a pregnancy to term?”
Abbott replied: “Rape is a crime, and Texas will work tirelessly to make sure we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets. So goal no. 1 in the state of Texas is to eliminate rape so that no woman, no person, will be a victim of rape.”
In a June 27 Instagram post, O’Rourke posted a clip of this vow. In the post’s caption, O’Rourke wrote: “Under Abbott, Texas leads the nation in rape offenses while the rate of arrests for rape has fallen by nearly HALF. What happened to eliminating rape in Texas?”
Before tackling O’Rourke’s claim, it’s important to note Abbott’s statement misconstrued the reality of most rape crimes.
Eight out of 10 cases of rape are committed by someone known to the victim, according to Department of Justice data shared by the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, or RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization. Among child and teen victims, that rate is even higher at 93%. Most of these crimes are not perpetrated by unknown assailants, as Abbott’s statement suggests by characterizing rapists on “the streets.”
O’Rourke’s claim about the number of rape offenses in Texas and the rate of arrests for those crimes is supported by data, but lacks important context.
Is Texas leading the nation in rape offenses?
Gina Hinojosa, O’Rourke’s director of policy and research, said the Democrat’s data on rapes in Texas came from a Statista data set that listed the “Total Number of forcible rape cases reported in the United States in 2020, by state” from the FBI 2020 Crime in the United States data.
The list showed Texas in the top spot, with more reported rapes in 2020 than even California, the most populous state in the country.
PolitiFact Texas reviewed the FBI data directly and found that in 2020, Texas had an estimated total 13,509 rape offenses — more than any other state, including California's 13,449 estimated total offenses.
So, Texas led in the number of rape offenses in 2020. But it’s important to note that Texas is also among the most populated states in the union, second to only California and about 7 million people ahead of the third most populated state, Florida, according to 2020 Census data.
Laura Hoke, spokesperson for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, recommended over email putting the data in terms of rates. Hinojosa at the O’Rourke campaign noted California with about 10 million more people than Texas had fewer rape offenses than Texas.
Texas had a higher rate of rape offenses compared to California: the rate per 100,000 people was 34.2 rape offenses in California, compared to 46 offenses per 100,000 people in Texas. The rate of rape offenses in Texas was also higher than the national rate that same year, of 38.4 rape crimes for every 100,000 people.
But there are several states with higher rates of reported rape crimes per capita. Alaska has a rate of 154.8 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants. And several other states also have higher rates than Texas, e.g. Colorado 62.9, South Dakota 67.1 rate, and Arkansas 73.5 rate.
O’Rourke was correct that Texas has more reported rapes than other states, but it’s important to note Texas does not have the highest rate when population is taken into account.
Have rate of arrests for rape offenses decreased by half from 2015?
The second part of O’Rourke’s statement was that “the rate of arrests for rape has fallen by nearly HALF” under Abbott’s tenure in office. Abbott was elected in 2014 and took office in 2015.
O’Rourke’s campaign pointed to the clearance rate for rape offenses in Department of Public Safety (DPS) crime reports as evidence to support his claim.
The clearance rate is the ratio between offenses “cleared” relative to the total number of offenses reported. It encompasses both cases that reached an arrest or an “exceptional clearance.” The latter is when the case is resolved but some element beyond law enforcement precludes arresting and charging the offender for prosecution. Exceptional clearances apply, for example, when the perpetrator is dead.
The clearance rate for rape offenses was 20.3% in 2020 and 38.1% in 2015, when Abbott took office. The campaign was referring to the percent change between 20.3% and 38.1%, meaning the proportion of clearances relative to offenses decreased by 47%. That qualifies as “nearly half,” as noted in O’Rourke post.
Dottie Carmichael, Texas A&M University Public Policy Research Institute director, said in an email the clearance rate can also be compared in terms of absolute change.
There was an 18% decrease in the clearance rate from 38.1% to 20.3% — that’s nearly 19%, which would still be nearly half of the 2015 rate of 38%.
This decline in clearance rates isn’t specific to rape crimes in Texas, according to Kim Rossmo, a criminologist at Texas State University. He said clearance rates for serious crimes, include rape and homicide, have been declining for decades.
While exceptional clearances are only a fraction of the cases closed, clearances and arrests are not interchangeable. So, not every case included in the clearance rate signifies an arrest.
There’s evidence that law enforcement in Austin improperly utilized “exceptional clearances” to clear rape cases. An independent audit conducted in 2019 found that the Austin Police Department improperly cleared sexual assault cases in 2017, including more than two dozen cases in three months.
“Even officially in Texas, in Austin, because we are aware already of some misfiling, mis-coding, miscalculation of data already around this topic. We know that there were cases that were exceptionally cleared by the police department and that should not have been coded in that way,” Juliana Gonzales, senior director of Sexual Assault Services at The SAFE Alliance said. SAFE is an Austin-based organization that serves survivors of sexual assault and exploitation.
But Rossmo said that while a fraction of the clearance rate are exceptional clearances, the clearance rate should be close to the arrest rate. The clearance rate is cited because the arrest of one person may clear several offenses, or multiple people may be arrested for one offense, according to the FBI’s webpage on clearances.
There were 2,195 arrests in 2015 relative to 12,208 offenses and 1,828 arrests relative to 13,327 offenses in 2020, according to DPS Crime in Texas reports.
To O’Rourke’s broader point about linking declining arrest rates to Gov. Greg Abbott: clearance rates are primarily the responsibility of local law enforcement who are investigating, Rossmo said.
However, the governor can approve funding and resource allocation to investigating rape.
When reached for comment, Abbott’s campaign listed legislation Abbott signed regarding sexual assault, such as 2019 legislation to reduce the rape kit backlog and 2021 legislation to codify recommendations from The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Task Force, administered by the governor’s office.
The O’Rourke campaign said the El Paso Democrat would push to extend the statute of limitations for sexual assault crimes and address the rape kit backlog persisting despite 2019 funding from the legislature.
O’Rourke said, “Under Abbott, Texas leads the nation in rape offenses while the rate of arrests for rape has fallen by nearly HALF.”
The numbers in O’Rourke’s claim are correct, though for the first half of the claim putting offenses in terms of offenses per 100,000 people would be more accurate on how Texas fares compared to the rest of the union.
For the latter half of the claim, O’Rourke's campaign included cases that did not end with an arrest as the FBI defines it, which includes an arrest, charge, and the offender turned over for prosecution.
PolitiFact Texas rated this Mostly True.
Instagram post by @betoorourke, June 27, 2022
Emails from Gina Hinojosa, director of policy and research at BETO FOR TEXAS, June 29 and July 20, 27, 28
Phone call with Gina Hinojosa, director of policy and research at BETO FOR TEXAS, July 27
Weihua Li, The Marshall Project, “What Can FBI Data Say About Crime in 2021? It’s Too Unreliable to Tell,” June 14, 2022
Email from Laura Hoke, spokesperson at the Texas Association Against Sexual Assualt, July 12, 2022
Interview with managing attorney Terry Fromson and former executive director Carol E. Tracy, Women’s Law Project, July 25, 2022
Interview with Juliana Gonzales, senior director of sexual assault services at SAFE Alliance in Austin, Texas, July 28, 2020
Interview with Lucia Summers, associate professor at Texas State University’s School of Criminal Justice and Criminology, July 29, 2022
Interview with Kim Rossmo, professor and university chair at the School of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Texas State University, July 29, 2022
Emails from Dottie Carmichael, Public Policy Research Institute Director at Texas A&M University, July 30, 2022 and Aug. 2, 2022
Texas Department of Public Safety, “Crime in Texas 2020”
Texas Department of Public Safety, “2015 Crime in Texas: Index Crime Analysis”
Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Crime in the United States Annual Reports: 2020 estimates,” Table 5
Email from Nicole Porter Stewart, FBI Liaison Specialist for FBI Criminal Justice Information Services Division, August 3, 2022
Email from Holly Morris, Public Affairs Specialist at FBI - CJIS Division, July 20, 2022
John E. Eck and D. Kim Rossmo, Criminology and Public Policy, “The new detective: Rethinking criminal investigations,” 2019
Email from spokesperson at Greg Abbott’s campaign with statement by spokesperson Renae Eze, July 28, 2022
Lena V. Groeger (ProPublica) and Mark Fahey and Mark Greenblatt (Newsy), ProPublica, "Could Your Police Department Be Inflating Rape Clearance Rates?" Nov. 15, 2018
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Fact-check: Does Texas have highest number of rape offenses in nation?