Thursday, February 11, 2010

States will be able to count inmates separately from localities, often rural, affecting redistricting

The Census Bureau will give states the option of not counting prison inmates where they are incarcerated, which is disproportionately in rural areas. Inmates are usually counted with the rest of the locality that contains the prison, but in May 2011 the bureau will "identify exactly where group quarters like prisons are and how many people occupy them," Sam Roberts of The New York Times reports. The decision could reduce state legislative representation of predominantly rural districts.

"This removes a technical problem," 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, told Roberts. "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." He added, "About 100 rural governments currently remove the prison populations manually, but this difficult and error-prone process was impossible to do on a state level. For the first time, state and local governments will have access to prison population counts in time for redistricting."

Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Wisconsin and perhaps other states are "weighing legislation requiring that prisoners be counted at their last known address . . . a change that would likely favor larger and mostly Democratic cities," Roberts reports. One extreme example of prison populations skewing legislative districts is in Anamosa, Iowa, where the three council districts have the same population, but one has all but 58 of its 1,400 residents living in a prison. (Read more)

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