My Two Census

Formerly the non-partisan watchdog of the 2010 US Census, and currently an opinion blog that covers all things political, media, foreign policy, globalization, and culture…but sometimes returning to its census/demographics roots.

Posts Tagged ‘Prisons’

NYT: New Option for the States on Inmates in the Census/2006 Census Bureau Prison Report

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

From the New York Times (click here for full article):

For decades, predominantly rural and Republican districts have had extra clout in state and local legislative bodies because their large inmate populations were counted as local residents in apportioning representation. Now, the Census Bureau has agreed to give states a tool that could dilute the political power of those districts.

In May 2011, in time for Congressional and legislative reapportionment, the bureau will identify exactly where group quarters like prisons are and how many people occupy them. States would then have the option of counting them in the local population or not.

“This removes a technical problem,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group that favors alternatives to prison sentences and urges that inmates be counted in their hometowns. “The census is going to say where the prisons are and how many people are in them, which will enable states the practical choice of counting them in the wrong place or not counting them at all.”

Mr. Wagner and other groups had originally asked the bureau to determine the home addresses of inmates and to count them at those addresses, but the 2010 census process was too far along for that change to be considered.

A number of states — including Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New York and Wisconsin — are weighing legislation requiring that prisoners be counted at their last known address — for purposes of reapportionment, a change that would likely favor larger and mostly Democratic cities.

In New York, the change could prove pivotal because of the see-saw fight for control of the State Senate and the fact that the state faces the loss of at least one Congressional seat after the 2010 census.

Update: A reader provided us with a link to a document that shows the Census Bureau’s 2006 position on this issue in the from a comprehensive report. The report concludes the following:

“Counting prisoners at a ‘permanent home of record’ address, rather than at their place of
incarceration, would result in increased cost both to the decennial census program and to
the Federal, State, and local correctional facilities that would be required to participate in
data collection efforts.  Our study raises concerns that this change would result in
decreased accuracy for a possibly large proportion of millions of individuals confined on
Census day.  The completeness of the census count would be compromised for prisoners
that cannot provide a valid address, and we have no method of determining how many
individuals would fall into that category.  Further, a fundamental shift for the enumeration
of correctional facilities would likely have a negative impact on other Group Quarters
enumerations.”

Prison Spotlight: The Diversity Myth

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

Here’s an interesting angle about the 2010 Census from a Kansas City Star opinion piece:

How Places With Prisons Falsely Boost “Diversity”

By Marie Sanchez

The 2010 U.S. census will soon be upon us, and by now you may have heard one of the patriotic pitches to comply.

Every breathing soul must be tallied during the massive federal endeavor, the national headcount taken every decade. The census is central to the functioning of our democracy, we’re told.

The data are used to distribute $400 billion in government spending, to compile countless reports on educational needs, to plan for economic development and formulate public policy.

More important, census data have a direct bearing on congressional districts and the Electoral College. The information is crucial to help us uphold the constitutional principle of one person, one vote.

So why, then, is the federal government gearing up to distort this vital set of data by how it accounts for the nation’s booming prison population? Prisoners are counted, not according to their home address but where they are incarcerated.

At a glance, this might not seem like a big deal — until the details of our nation’s 2 million inmates are broken down. Rural communities with large prison populations suddenly appear to be bastions of diversity, while those without prisons continue to see their population numbers slide.

On average, inmates serve for 34 months before returning to their original communities. They never shop, dine, attend school or otherwise become members of the towns and cities where they are warehoused while paying their debt to society.

One distortion this way of counting population causes is what some activists call “prison-based gerrymandering.” Because population figures are used to determine legislative districts, voting power is diluted in some areas and falsely ramped up in others.

The NAACP, no doubt recalling how black people were once considered three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation, was among the first organizations to call for reform. Because 12 percent of black men in their 20s and 30s are in prison at any one time, urban areas lose out on the strength of those uncounted inmates.

But it’s actually rural communities, where prisons are often built, that suffer the most from the distortions. Peter Wagner, a Massachusetts-based advocate for the Prison Policy Initiative, has found 173 counties where more than half of the black population is made up of inmates. Seven state senate districts in New York alone, he argues, would need to be redrawn if inmates were omitted from population figures for the areas where they are doing time.

Local officials in some parts of the country have responsibly attempted to eliminate the distortions. Bravo. The town of Anamosa, Iowa, changed the way it elects city council members after discovering that the population of a state penitentiary created a ward where a candidate got elected on the strength of two write-in votes. His inmate constituency of about 1,300 prisoners was roughly as populous as the town’s other wards.

With census-takers already completing the process of verifying addresses for the spring headcount, it’s too late for the government to change how it plans to conduct the 2010 census. Recording the true home address of inmates would be costly (an estimated $250 million), and many prisons don’t have the information readily available.

What the government can do to help rectify the situation is release the prison data earlier than planned, in time for states to take the information and delete those numbers for redistricting purposes.

Criminals forfeit a lot when they get locked up. They lose the right to vote, in all but two states.

They lose daily interaction with loved ones and the chance to engage in meaningful work. What they shouldn’t lose is the sense that their presence counts.

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send e-mail to msanchez@kcstar.com.