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Census Prisoner Count Skews Political Representation

New America Media, News Report, Erik Fowle Posted: Sep 12, 2009

Prisoners may not be able to vote, but their U.S. Census population count is being used to bolster the political power in rural areas where prisons are located.

On April 1, 2010, the Census Bureau will conduct its 24th decennial count of the U.S. population. Data from Census counts is used to allocate federal funds each year and to determine the number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives. Census data also helps determine district boundaries based on population size, which can change a states political demographics.

In addition to individual homes, the Census counts people in a variety of housing situations, including college dormitories, nursing homes, hospitals and prisons. They are counted as members of the community where their residence is located, even if their original home is elsewhere.

The problem, according to Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based group, is that unlike students and hospital patients, prisoners cannot vote. The misrepresentation of districts by Census counts, he argues, can lead to inaccurate population swings and gerrymandering.

There are more than 2 million prisoners in federal, state and local institutions, many of which are located in rural areas. As a result of declines in farming and mining, these areas often look to prisons to boost their economies. Prisoners are, in effect, bolstering the constituency of representatives they cant vote for and dont necessarily support. This method of counting also artificially decreases the populations of urban areas -- where most prisoners are from and will eventually return to and limits city, state and federal representation.

The Prison Policy Initiative reports that if New York State did not include prisoners in its population counts, seven upstate New York State Senate districts would not meet minimum population requirements and would have to be redrawn.

The Census Bureau estimated in 2006 that obtaining the addresses of each prisoner would cost some $250 million. This represents more than a 1,200 percent increase over the cost of counting prisoners in the 2000 census. Prisoners would have to be counted individually or through access to the prison systems administrative records. But, the Census Bureau noted, relying on administrative records alone is not a viable option, due to possible inaccuracies and inconsistencies in data.

Critics argue that cost may not be not a legitimate deterrent to changing the way prisoners are counted. Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative says much of this can be placed on states themselves, to figure out where prisoners come from and adjust their data. A full-scale shift in how the Census is conducted is not necessary, he argues, as long as individual states amend their legislatures to allow for prison counts. For instance, Wagner says, Kansas "figures out where its military personnel are counted and adjusts its data later.

Another possible solution, Wagner says, would be to take prisoners out of the Census altogether so they would not affect redistricting.

The Prison Policy Initiative is attempting to take action across the country. In Maine, a school board is posting a petition to change state legislature. Wagner is scheduled to appear at a Sept. 15 hearing in Wisconsin to testify in support of a constitutional amendment that would eliminate disenfranchised convicts from state counts for redistricting.

Wagner is also working with the Census Bureau itself. The Census Bureau is starting to look at it for the long term, he said.

While strides are being made at local and state levels, the Bureaus national operation will remain the same for the 2010 Census.

Related Articles:

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Cooperate With the Census, But Be Careful

Ten FAQs of Census 2010

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