Thursday, April 15, 2010

Maryland becomes first state to have census count prisoners at their last home address

Maryland became the first state to mandate that the census count prisoners in at their most recent home addresses instead of the usually rural areas where they are held. Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the No Representation Without Population Act into law Tuesday. Similar changes are being considered in at least seven other states, Carol Morello of The Washington Post reports. The switch is predicted to cut rural population counts used to determine a variety of government funding measures and legislative representation.

"The vast majority will be going back to where they came from, and what this will do is count them where they live," Hilary O. Shelton, head of the Washington office of the NAACP, told Morello. Maryland Democratic Del. Kevin Kelly, whose district has one federal and two state penitentiaries that house 4,300 prisoners, disagreed, saying, "They may be originally from Baltimore, but they're spending the next five, 10 or 30 years here." The Census Bureau announced in May that it would identify the populations of prisons, but made no recommendation as to how states should use the data. New York, Illinois, Florida, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Oregon are also considering proposals that would count prisoners in their hometowns.

"Opponents of the Maryland law were assured it would have no impact on how the state divides its share of federal funding," Morello writes. However, Shelton was clear in what she thought lawmakers should do with the revised count: "The next step is to find a way to assign people based on where we expect them to go when they're released from prison, so we can also calculate the resources the census is used for." (Read more)

1 comment:

pwagner said...

I understand that conflict sells, but I wish the urban media wouldn't write stories like this.

The bill in Maryland passed with bi-partisan support from both urban and rural areas. Why? Partially because the bill was explicitly not about funding, and in part because people were drawn to the argument about fundamental electoral fairness. Prisoners remain legal residents of the communities where they are from, not where they are temporarily incarcerated.

I think a very large reason why the bill passed is because the advocates framed it as a win-win for everyone. Yes, most of the state's prisoners come from Baltimore; but the real victims of prison-based gerrymandering are everyone who doesn't have a massive prison in their district. Rural residents who don't live near prisons lose about as much from prison-based gerrymandering as urban residents in communities with high rates of incarceration.

The major newspaper on Maryland's Eastern Shore editorialized in support of the bill, and their state senator spoke on the floor in support of it. Why? Because prison-based gerrymandering creates larger problems for county government.

In Somerset County, the majority of one county commission district is incarcerated. The people who live next to the prison are given almost 3 times as much influence over county affairs as residents elsewhere. Worse, the county settled a Voting Rights Act lawsuit in the 1980s and agreed to create a majority-minority district. But the district has been unable to elect an African-American because the large prison splits the sizable African-American resident population between multiple districts.

Almost everyone benefits from ending prison-based gerrymandering.

I disagree, though, with Hilary Shelton's comment that changing the data for funding purposes should be next. There is far less money at stake than most people assume, and the way that federal funding formulas work, the aggrieved party tends to be similarly situated rural communities without prisons rather than urban communities.