Counting People Where They Live, Not Where They're In Prison

Recently, the Census Bureau proposed revisions to the Census rules that would continue to count incarcerated people where they are locked up, rather than their home communities, in the 2020 Census. If they do not revise their proposal prior to finalizing the Census rules, this will be a huge blow for fairness, equity, and common sense at a time when our criminal justice system could use a dose of all three.

There are plenty of problems with the Census Bureau's proposal. First, people don't "live" in prison communities because they choose to, they are placed in them against their will, unlike other populations who reside some place temporarily on the day the Census is taken.

Oddly, the Census Bureau has decided that other populations -overseas military personnel or juveniles in residential treatment centers, for example - should be counted in their home location even if they are sleeping elsewhere on Census Day, revealing that the Bureau is (appropriately) open to incorporating community ties as a factor in determining residency. But people don't necessarily remain in one prison (an average of around seven months in New York State) any longer than they are deployed overseas (where average deployment is around eight months).

The Census Bureau's proposal also threatens to distort democracy. At its base, counting people where they are incarcerated, as opposed to where they really live, inflates the political power of communities that contain prisons, and deflates it everywhere else.

That distortion affects inner city communities of color whose residents wind up in prisons at disproportionate rates. As their sons and daughters are shipped from their neighborhoods to generally rural communities, the political power of African American and Latino parents will ebb under the Census Bureau's current proposal. At a time when friction between communities of color and the criminal justice system is at a fever pitch, the Census Bureau may be squandering an opportunity to strike a blow for egalitarianism.

These types of distortions can also be harmful in rural communities. A prison on one side of the county can seriously distort redistricting at the local level for county commissions, city councils, and school boards.

In May, for example, a U.S. District Court found that the City of Cranston, RI, had violated the "one person, one vote" rule by counting people in prison as "residents" for the purposes of drawing city council and school board districts. Each voting district, called a "Ward," was made up of around 13,000 to 14,000 individuals. But in Ward 6, 3,000 of those "residents" were in prison, most of whom were not from Cranston and couldn't vote in local elections. This kind of overrepresentation means that every seven non-prisoner voters of Ward 6 had the voting power of 10 voters in the rest of Cranston.

There is still time for the Census Bureau to reconsider, and for your voice to be heard. The Census Bureau is taking comments on its proposal until September 1, 2016. Readers can find out how to voice their opinions about the Census Bureau rule proposal by going to a helpful web page established by the Prison Policy Initiative, which has been monitoring this issue for years.