Monday, April 27, 2009

Rural, urban interests split on where the census should say prisoners reside

As the 2010 census approaches, a rural-urban split is occurring over where prisoners should be counted. Many prisons are located in rural areas, and the traditional method of counting people with no "usual residence" at their location on Census Day, April 1, has some concerned that rural populations are being inflated, and urban populations undercounted, with an impact on electoral representation.

"It's systemic distortion," Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said. "You have a disproportionately black and Hispanic male population that is counted in the wrong spot." Alice Green, founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Justice says that prisoners, unable to vote while counted as constituents, "are not represented, and they are totally exploited." They want the census to consider prisoners' residences as their last known address.

But many rural representatives say that the impact of prisons on their area make it necessary to count prisoners in the counties they reside at during their incarceration. Elizabeth O'C. Little, New York state senator, says that her rural district is significantly impacted by the presence of a prison. Without counting the prison's population, her district would not have enough constituents to warrant a seat in the Senate. She told Keith B. Richburg of The Washington Post, "It was the influences at home that got them into trouble in the first place, so maybe they'd be better off someplace else." (Read more)

1 comment:

Peter Wagner said...

Where the Census should count prisoners isn't quite the urban-vs-rural split that urban newspapers often imply.

Crediting urban prisoners to rural prison districts dilutes urban voting strength in state legislatures, that is very true. It's big enough to matter, but the impact is tiny compared to the harm caused to democracy within rural communities. Rural county legislative districts are often so small that a single state prison can be the majority of it.

In rural Anamosa, Iowa, the state prison is 96% of a district, giving the handful of residents who live near the prison 25 times as much political power on city issues as residents elsewhere in the city. Counting prisoners as residents of the prison town gives the residents of Groveland, NY more than twice as much say over the future of Livingston County as the town's numbers warrant.

With only one exception in the entire country, every time the rural public finds out that prisoners are being used to distort local districts, they insist that the local legislature ignore this population when drawing districts. About a hundred rural towns and counties ignore the prison population when drawing districts, including all 4 of the counties with prisons in Senator Betty Little's district. In 2003, during their own political apportionment, one of those counties, Essex, went so far pass a local law explaining why they did not consider the prisoners to be residents of their county and why counting them as residents unfairly dilutes the voting strength of other county residents.

The urban vs. rural aspect of the prison miscount gets most of the press, but rural people are doing a disproportionate share of the work to end prison-based gerrymandering.