The Facts First team spent the night fact-checking candidates’ claims from the stage in Detroit.
Wednesday’s debate featured heated exchanges between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris of California over health care and criminal justice reform. Several candidates, including businessman Andrew Yang and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, debated the effects of US immigration policies. Many were challenged on their records, including Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey on his time as Newark mayor.
Here are the facts.
Rates of suicides, overdoses, depression and anxiety
Andrew Yang said “suicides, drug overdoses, depression, anxiety” are at “record highs.” He added, “It’s gotten so bad that American life expectancy has declined for the last three years.”
Facts First: Yang is overstating things. While it’s true that these rates have risen recently, it’s impossible to say they’re at record levels. It is true that life expectancy declined over a three-year period.
America’s suicide rates are at the highest level since World War II, according to research by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017, that rate was 14 suicides per 100,000 people, which was 33% higher than the rate in 1999. However, the suicide rate in 1932, during the Great Depression, was even higher at 17.4 per 100,000 people.
While overdose deaths increased between 1999 to 2017, provisional data posted by the CDC earlier this month suggest overdose deaths fell slightly last year – down to an estimated 68,000 from about 70,000 the year before.
As for depression and anxiety, mental health is harder to quantify, though studies do indicate an uptick in recent years, particularly depression.
A study published in the journal Psychological Medicine found depression rose “significantly” among Americans age 12 and older from 2005 to 2015.
A BlueCross BlueShield study found, “Diagnoses of major depression have risen dramatically by 33 percent” between 2013 and 2016.
Life expectancy decreased between 2014 and 2017 – falling from 78.9 to 78.6, according CDC figures. Last year, the CDC director called the decline in life expectancy a “wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable.”
Harris’ prosecutorial record for raising cash bail costs
Tulsi Gabbard questioned Kamala Harris’ record as a prosecutor in California, accusing her of keeping a “cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.”
Facts First: It’s true that, as a prosecutor, Harris advocated for higher bail amounts as a way to fight what she said was a public safety issue, supporting raising cash bail costs for gun-related crimes shortly after being elected San Francisco’s district attorney in 2004. But she also introduced legislation as a senator in 2017 to “reform or replace the practice of money bail.”
Speaking at a May 2004 event, audio of which was first reported by the Free Beacon, Harris argued the city’s low bail meant people came to commit cheaper crimes in San Francisco.
That same year, San Francisco’s Superior Court drastically increased cash bail costs for weapon-related felony charges. The cost doubled and even tripled in some cases.
In 2017, however, as a senator, Harris introduced legislation along Sen. Rand Paul to encourage changes or replacement of the cash bail system, which requires those awaiting trial to put up a specified amount of money to be released from jail.
“It’s long past time to address bail reform across the country,” Harris said in a February 2019 tweet. “Too often, poor people sit in jail because they don’t have the money to pay bail, while someone with the same offense but money in their back pocket gets out. This is a serious injustice.”
In her book “The Truths We Hold,” Harris also writes that she knew, as a prosecutor, that lower-income families were affected by the cash bail system.
Al Qaeda since 9/11
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said that al Qaeda “is stronger today than 9/11.”
Facts First: The FBI says that the threat posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates is “still present and active,” but it is difficult to determine if Gabbard is right that al Qaeda is “stronger” today than it was on 9/11.
The terror group is currently fighting in more countries around the world than it was 18 years ago and has recruited tens of thousands of fighters since that time, according to reports by the Council on Foreign Relations and the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Al Qaeda currently maintains a global network of regional affiliates that are “integrated in the group’s deliberative and consultative processes,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations, which says those subsidiaries have allowed al Qaeda to expand its power and influence around the world.
In January, Trump’s outgoing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said, “Al Qaeda is showing signs of confidence as its leaders work to strengthen their networks and encourage attacks against western interests.”
But most accounts of progress in the war against al Qaeda suggest the group has been operationally weakened, pointing to its failure to carry out a mass casualty attack against the US since 9/11 and the killing of senior leaders, most notably Osama bin Laden in 2011, according to the Rand Corporation.
Kamala Harris said, “On the Hyde amendment, you made a decision for years to withhold resources to poor women to reproductive health care and including women who were the victims of rape and incest.”
Facts First: Biden’s votes supporting the Hyde Amendment until 1994 most likely resulted in blocking some low-income rape and incest victims from accessing abortions.
The Hyde amendment, enacted in 1977, bans federal funds from being used to pay for abortions, which largely impacts people on Medicaid, the public health care program for low-income Americans.
However, exceptions for instances of rape or incest were added in a 1994 appropriations bill, which allowed Medicaid recipients to have some abortions paid for. (An exception for when the woman’s life is in danger already existed prior to that.)
Biden said in 2010 that he had supported Hyde “for the entirety of the time it’s been around.”
But in June 2019, Biden changed his stance and came out against Hyde, pointing to a slew of Republican states that have passed laws this year restricting abortion. “If I believe health care is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s ZIP code,” he said at the time.
How much the federal government has cut in taxes
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said: “Since 2001, we have cut $5 trillion worth of taxes. Almost all of that has gone to the wealthiest people in America. We have made the income inequality worse not better through the policies of the federal government.”
Facts First: It’s true that the US has cut taxes by roughly $5 trillion since 2001, and it is also true that most of it has benefitted wealthy Americans. On top of that, it’s true that income inequality in America has risen although tax cuts are only part of the story.
According to a July 2018 report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, federal tax changes between 2001 and 2018 reduced revenue by $5.1 trillion, “with nearly two-thirds of that flowing to the richest fifth of Americans.”
The wealthiest fifth of households received tax cuts equal to 4.8% of their income by 2018, more than other groups. The poorest 20% of people received the least amount of tax relief, at 3.4%, according to the ITEP.
And according to a 2018 report by Economic Policy Institute, income inequality has risen in every state since the 1970s.
By the end of 2025, the amount of taxes cut will grow to $10.6 trillion, with almost $2 trillion having gone to the richest 1%, the ITEP report says.
Harris visit to Homestead, a Florida facility
California Sen. Kamala Harris said, “I went to a place in Florida called Homestead, and there’s a private detention facility being paid for by your taxpayer dollars that houses 2,700 children,” Harris said.
Facts First: Harris is accurately describing the capacity of the housing facility, though numbers fluctuate and have dropped to less than 700 children as of July 28.
Late last month, Harris, along with a slew of other Democratic candidates, visited the Homestead facility, which is near Miami, Florida, the site of the previous Democratic debates. On June 25, days before Harris’ visit, just over 2,300 children were being housed at Homestead, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The influx facility, which was also used under former President Barack Obama, houses unaccompanied migrant children who have been apprehended at the southern border and are turned over to the HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is charged with their care. As of July 14, the average length of stay was 36 days, according to HHS.
As of July 22, there were just under 1,000 unaccompanied children at Homestead, according to HHS. As of July 28, that number was “approximately” 650.
The facility gained national attention after some Democratic candidates tried to enter the facility last month and claimed it was emblematic of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. The administration says that “no children at Homestead are there due to” Trump’s controversial “zero tolerance” policy that led to the separation of thousands of families. (Trump signed an executive order ending the policy in June 2018.)
-Kay Guerrero and Priscilla Alvarez
Biden’s vote against child care tax credit in 1981
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand criticized former Vice President Joe Biden for voting against expanding the child care tax credit in 1981 and said that he advocated against women working outside the home.
“When the Senate was debating middle class affordability for child care he wrote an op-ed,” Gillibrand said. “He voted against it – the only vote. But he wrote an op-ed that he believed that women working outside the home would ‘create the deterioration of family.’ He also said that women who were working outside the home were quote avoiding responsibility.”
Facts First: This needs context. Her claim about his vote is correct, yet she mischaracterized what he said.
Biden did vote against expanding the child care tax credit, but only for families making more than $30,000 ($88,00 today) in 1981. His quotes used by Gillibrand were about parents, not specifically mothers.
Biden was in fact the only senator in 1981 to vote against a bill expanding the child care tax credit to people earning more than $30,000 ($88,000). At the time he said that he thought it helped subsidize well-off families and parents instead of benefiting those who truly needed it. He never wrote that women working outside of the home created the deterioration of the family or avoided responsibility for their children.
“I consider it legitimate and necessary for the government to encourage single parents on limited incomes to get off of welfare and into the job market, or to help families of modest means to adequately provide the material necessities of child-rearing,” Biden wrote. “But what I do not accept as legitimate Is social policy that encourages a couple making $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 or more a year to evade full responsibility for their children by granting them a tax credit for day-care expenses. I do not believe it fair to ask a family of marginal income, choosing to provide the primary care for their children, to subsidize an upper income family’s day care.”
In a 1981 floor speech on the matter, Biden added he had no problem with women working.
“I have no objection to the fact that if a mother and a father want to get together and say, ‘Hey, by the way, Joe, you take care of the child and I am going to pursue my career,’ that is fine. That is a personal decision, and I am all for it,” Biden said.
Number of prisoners freed due to Harris policy
Former Vice President Joe Biden criticized California Sen. Kamala Harris for her leadership during her tenure as San Francisco District Attorney.
Biden said that her staff urged her to turn over information to defense attorneys that could help their clients. “She didn’t do that. She never did it. What happened, along came a federal judge and said ‘enough’ and he freed 1,000 of these people. If you doubt me, Google, 1,000 prisoners freed, Kamala Harris.”
Facts First: It appears that Biden misspoke. He got the ballpark number correct but his characterization of what happened is off. Harris opted not to make a policy change favored by her staff early in her tenure. Years later, that decision led to roughly 1,000 cases being dismissed or dropped. There is no evidence to back up Biden’s claim that 1,000 people were released from prison.
In 2005, Harris’ staff recommended she implement a policy to disclose evidence that could help a defendant’s case, including misconduct by law enforcement, to ensure fair trials for criminal defendants, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Five years later, according to news reports an estimated 1,000 drug cases were dropped or dismissed by San Francisco prosecutors after it became public that a crime lab technician stole cocaine evidence, tainting multiple cases. The same lab technician was also convicted of domestic violence, which wasn’t reported to defense lawyers and could have made her an unreliable witness.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said to former Vice President Joe Biden, “Your argument is not with me, it’s with science. And unfortunately your plan is just too late. The science tells us we have to get off coal in 10 years. Your plan does not do that. We have to have off of fossil fuels in 15.”
Fact First: Inslee is exaggerating the timeline.
The science that Inslee was referring to likely comes from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s report published in 2018. The report argued that the world needs to urgently cut emissions. It did not set a specific year as a deadline or say that we only have 10 years to fix our problems, there is no specific tipping point, though some politicians and media outlets have characterized it as such.
Instead, the report explains there needs to be a 45% cut in human-caused carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, as compared to 2010 levels. If it doesn’t the planet could warm by 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052. The international community considers 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming to be catastrophic.
These are all estimates based on the best science. Any level of warming is dangerous and risks increase as the temperature does. At the current rates, the world could easily go far beyond the 1.5 degree goal by 2052.
Sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine
Former Vice President Joe Biden defended his criminal justice record by saying that he has tried since 2007 to “totally” eliminate the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, which disproportionately affected African Americans.
Facts First: Biden is right that he introduced in 2007 a bill to treat crack and powder cocaine equally, but he did not mention he supported legislation 21 years earlier that created the disparity in the first place.
In 2007, Biden introduced a bill that would undo the 100-to-1 powder-to-crack ratio set into law by another bill he co-sponsored in 1986. That earlier bill established the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence for people convicted of distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine or five grams of crack.
Biden’s 2007 bill did not pass, but the Obama administration did sign into law in 2010 legislation to reduce the ratio to 18 to 1.
And in 2018, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, which makes the reform retroactive, helping those convicted of crack offenses before 2010.
-Alex Rogers and Jeremy Herb
Cory Booker’s record as Newark mayor
While defending his record as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, against attacks from former Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker claimed that the leader of New Jersey’s American Civil Liberties Union “has said that I embraced reforms not just in action but in deeds.”
Facts First: This is true, but lacks important context.
Booker was mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013, and in his last year the head of ACLU-NJ did “commend” Booker and the city’s police director for issuing “one of the most comprehensive policies in the nation requiring the tracking and public reporting of the police department’s stop-and-frisk practices.”
But the reforms came, in part, following a 96-page complaint made by the ACLU against Newark’s police department in 2010. The