Dallas Morning News’ Credulity = Incredibility [updated because math is hard]

[Update: The DMN corrected its error.]

In Houston alone, about 300,000 sex trafficking cases are prosecuted each year.

(Dallas Morning News Editorial: Cracking down on sex traffickers).

The number is such obvious nonsense that anyone who gave it any serious thought would decry it. (Amy Alkon and Walter Olson got there before me.) But the DMN blithely published it as fact.

In Harris County, according to Texas Office of Court Administration statistics, 2,650 36,862 new felony cases were filed and 5,819 68,142 new misdemeanor cases were filed in 2012. ((Those numbers seem low to me, given the crowds in the courthouse lobbies but I think the source can be trusted.My search-fu was defective.)) So the total of all new cases filed in Harris County is nowhere near the 300,000 sex trafficking cases asserted by the Dallas Morning News.

According to the Harris County District Clerk’s website, there hasn’t been a prosecution for sex trafficking in Houston since 2010. But when people say “sex trafficking,” they may mean “compelling prostitution.” There have been two compelling-prostitution cases filed in Harris County this year.

Not 300,000. Two.

There are federal prosecutions as well. Statistics are not as handy, ((The bureau of justice statistics is eight years behind.)) but I have a feel for what’s going on in the federal courthouse, and the DOJ loves putting out press releases. The number of people prosecuted for sex trafficking in the Southern District of Texas each year is in the double digits.

Here’s where I think the wide-eyed nincompoops at the Dallas Morning News got their number:

Poe, a Republican from Humble, said sex trafficking rings prey on the large number of immigrant women and girls living in the Houston area and across Texas, accounting for a disproportionate share of the estimated 300,000 sex trafficking cases prosecuted each year.

(Texas on the Potomac.)

Nobody seems to know where that 300,000 number comes from. (Maggie McNeill suggests a plausible genesis here and here.) It’s a couple of orders of magnitude less obviously wrong than the same number attributed to Houston, but still glaringly obviously wrong—if the wrongness of “300,000 sex-trafficking cases in Houston” were equivalent to getting smacked upside the head with a 2X4, “300,000 sex-trafficking cases in the United States” would be getting poked in the arm with a fork.

The population of the United states is 314 million, give or take. The population of Texas is 26 million, give or take. For Texas to have a “disproportionate share of the estimated 300,000 sex trafficking cases prosecuted each year,” Texas would have to have more than 24,840 ((Give or take.)) sex trafficking prosecutions every year.

In 2010, there were 91,047 people prosecuted in federal court. All told. Nationwide. If that number is still about right (and I suspect that federal prosecutions have dropped, rather than increasing, since 2010, given Congress’s laudable inability to keep the government running), even if federal prosecutors were prosecuting nothing but sex trafficking offenses ((A ludicrous proposition—Alkon has BJS statistics:

Federally funded human trafficking task forces opened 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking for investigation between January 2008 and June 2010.

Most suspected incidents of human trafficking were classified as sex trafficking (82%)…

)), for there to be 300,000 sex trafficking cases prosecuted nationwide each year state courts would have to prosecute 210,000 such cases. For Texas’s share of these 210,000 prosecutions to be “disproportionate” Texas would have to prosecute 17,389 sex-trafficking cases each year.

In Texas, statewide, there were 15,629 203,471 criminal cases of all types filed last year in district court; ((All but 216 were felonies.)) of these, 2,723 were misdemeanors and 45,163 were felonies not classified into categories that are recognizably not sex trafficking (murder, theft, etc.).

In Texas, statewide, there were 32,991 415,436 misdemeanor cases filed in 2012 in county court; of these, 116,307 were not classified into categories that are recognizably not sex trafficking (DWI, drug offenses, etc.)

So even if every crime charged in Texas that was not classified as something recognizably not sex trafficking were a sex trafficking crime, ((A ludicrous proposition.)) there would only have been 161,470 sex-trafficking cases filed last year in Texas—nowhere near the 300,000 promoted by the DMN.

Texas is less populous than California, but it has the world’s longest stretch of border between a first-world country and a third-world country. Texas’s economy is humming along while California’s is faltering. It would surprise me if Texas didn’t have more sex-trafficking cases than its population alone dictated.

But 300,000? Utter and complete nonsense.

23 responses to “Dallas Morning News’ Credulity = Incredibility [updated because math is hard]”

  1. Actually, California’s economy is doing pretty well:


    Not really sure what that has to do with your main point, but if we’re going to be sticklers for detail…

    By the way, Ted Poe also once claimed that “illegal immigrants” committed as many as 25 murders per day in the US:


    That’s 9,125 murders per year. Given that there were 14,187 people murdered in the US last year (http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/09/16/u-s-murder-rate-higher-than-nearly-all-other-developed-countries-fbi-data/), that would be pretty darned remarkable if it were true. Add this to the ridiculous claims about sex trafficking, and one can see a clear pattern of rhetorical excess at play.

  2. I worked at the DMN 20 years ago. The “thinking” even then was that a ditto machine is beyond professional reproach; in other words, the official government narrative — what they used to call “the party line” in Soviet Russia — was the “truth,” beyond which lay a vast, scary and ultimately profitless wilderness of claims and contradictory information difficult (and expensive, and even professionally hazardous) to parse. For example, during the 15 years that I worked in the newsroom, I can’t recall the News’ highly touted, highly paid Washington bureau’s producing a single story not pegged to an official press release. Transcribing the politician’s statement accurately WAS the job, analysis being left to the gentle reader and to the discretion of the editorial board. … Aside: Dyscalculia seems to afflict “word people” like the News’ editorialists disproportionately: for example, one highly intelligent editor I worked under believed that averaging 10 economists’ best guesses of future GDP to two decimal places made the blended forecast more accurate.

  3. The total numbers are somewhere in between. During FY 2012 approximately 126,000 cases were added to Harris County court dockets, including 44,053 felonies, 72,102 misdemeanors, and 9,722 juvenile cases. See Texas Indigent Defense Commission “Harris County Data Sheet, 2012,” http://tidc.tamu.edu/public.net/, accessed August 12, 2013. The Dallas Morning News numbers are still impossible, as you rightly point out.

    • The FBI Bureau of Justice Statistics documents- table #69 arrests by state, shows that in 2012, there were 7,009 arrests for prostitution in Texas (the entire state) and 78 of them were minors. Nationwide, there were 48,148 people arrested for prostitution, of which 657 were minors- most aged 16 and 17. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2012/crime-in-the-u.s.-2012/tables/69tabledatadecpdf

      Either Houston doesn’t bother to report their arrests or someone in Houston or at the Dallas Morning News is smoking too much weed. Not that I have a problem with them smoking whatever they want- as long as they don’t keep posting false statistics like that- which unfortunately most people who read it don’t go back for the revised version of the article and believe whatever cr.p is written there first.

      • Your link took me to an OCA report generator. You may have clicked (or failed to click) an errant box. I checked all original cases filed in the Harris County criminal district courts and got a bit over 39K felonies, just slightly less than the TIDC numbers.

  4. Well, I’m sure there were over 300,000 traffic tickets issued over the year.
    And each ticket has a section marked Sex _M _F, so with some poor editing …

  5. Mr. Bennett, thank you so much for this article. The misinformation that floods the media outlets and spews out in every direction is our greatest obstacle in our struggle to have sex offense legislation based on facts and empirical evidence.

    Now that you have possibly determined the source of the 300,000, perhaps you can determine a source for the claim that has been floating around for several years now that there are 100,000 “missing” registered sex offenders. I have written the Smart Office, who uses it, and several legislators who used it, and a few other begging for a source for the number; not one has responded.

    Thank you again for much needed facts and common sense.

  6. Hey, you broke them:
    “Updated 11/24: The original version of this editorial contained inaccurate numbers on sex trafficking cases in the Houston area. That information has been deleted from this version.”

  7. I checked the Office of Court Administration and from 9/1/11 through 9/30/12 there were 47,305 felonies filed in Harris County. That is a 13-month period. Didn’t check what kind of felonies. That works out to about 2,150 per court.
    Mark, I don’t want to get picky but your original post fell into the same general woopsie trap as the Morning Fascist’s story. The numbers just weren’t reasonable.
    Some years ago, during the big child abduction/pictures on milk cartons scare, there were reports of tens of thousands of kids being abducted annually. Some enterprising reporter in Denver called the FBI and said when you take out the custody dispute snatches, how many kids were abducted by stangers annually. The answer was under 100.
    That reporter got a Pulitizer Prize for a one-phone-call story.
    When the numbers look wrong, they probably are.
    You bet 300,000 sex trafficking cases in Houston per year looks wrong. But, so does 5,000 or so felonies per year.
    Alarm bells should have gone off both at the DMN and in your office. I see they eventually did in your office. Let this be a lesson to all of us. If the story sounds fishy or the numbers look crazy, both the stories and the numbers likely are fishy and crazy.

  8. […] (The original version can be found here towards the middle of the page.) This amazing claim was completely debunked by Houston criminal defense attorney Mark Bennett, who broke down actual prosecution stats and the possible rationale behind the Dallas News’ […]

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