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Students and prisoners: Census should not count them the same

by Peter Wagner, October 25, 2004  

The Census Bureau currently counts college students and prisoners the same way: as residents of the town in which they sleep. This makes sense for students, because they are a part of the surrounding college community, but prisoners have no such ties. The below table from my Actual Constituents: Students and Political Clout in New York report compares how students interact with the surrounding community with how prisoners do not.

Students Prisoners
In college/prison town by choice Yes No
Has control over whether to transfer to another institution Yes No
Can Vote Yes In 48 states, No (only in Maine and Vermont)
By Supreme Court precedent, can vote locally Yes No
Encouraged to leave the institution to spend money locally Yes No
Has interactions with surrounding community Yes No
Is welcome to stay in local community upon graduation/release Yes No
Odds of returning to pre-college or pre-prison address after graduation/release Low High

Notes: Actual Constituents: Students and Political Clout in New York explains how state legislative districts are drawn, why they are drawn to contain equal numbers of people, why it makes good sense to include students at their college addresses as a part of legislative districts, and why students should be welcomed at the polls. For more contrasts between students and prisoners, see also the analysis in the Brennan Center’s report: One Size Does Not Fit All: Why the Census Bureau Should Change the Way It Counts Prisoners [PDF]

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