Counting prisoners in prison towns can burden local government

by Peter Wagner, February 23, 2004  

In 1999. the tiny village of Grafton Ohio successfully lobbied the Ohio legislature to have state prisoners excluded from its official population totals. Ohio law requires villages to become cities and offer additional services when their population reaches 5,000.

Councilperson John Lescher told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Grafton didn’t have the budget to be a city, and that situation was by design. “Years ago, we laid out a master plan for the village. It included parks, infrastructure and other upgrades. Nowhere did we desire to become a city.”

Becoming a city would require “hiring a labor attorney, a safety/service director and creating a cemetery board and city health district.” Standards for police and firefighters would also be raised, meaning more expense.

Councilperson Lescher complained that as a result of the Census counting state prisoners as Grafton residents, the village will have “to spend money we don’t have to make changes for people that don’t even benefit from our services.”

The record does not say whether Grafton considered lobbying the Census to change counting policy, but 1999 would probably have been too late for the Census to change procedures for the 2000 Census. So instead the village turned to the legislature to adjust the Census data after the fact and exclude prison populations from the population count required for city status.

Census data is used in a variety of ways by countless government programs. Not all states define “city” the way Ohio does, but it’s impossible to predict all of the ways that artificially changing a town’s census numbers can have. Piecemeal after-the-fact solutions make even less sense when you consider that prisoners aren’t considered a part of the prison town community. There is no longer a good reason to count prisoners at the facility. And in the case of towns like Grafton, if the Census Bureau counted prisoners at their home addresses, prison towns would not be faced with the taxes and structures of a city with 6,004 residents when they in fact have only 2,312.

Thanks to D. Malloy for the tip.