A changing country needs a changing census

by Peter Wagner, November 29, 2004  

When the Census Bureau began counting Americans in 1790, it really didn’t matter that they decided to count prisoners as residents of the prison. The data was only used for one purpose: to gauge the relative populations of each state to determine how many seats in Congress each received. It didn’t matter where in a state prisoners were counted because legislative redistricting didn’t yet exist. Until 1900, most federal prisoners were kept in state prisons, so even these miniscule numbers were not crossing state lines. For more than a century, the impact on the distribution of political power from the Census Bureau’s decision on where to count prisoners appears to have been: zero.

In 1880, there was only one federal prison and 61 state prisons. At that time, the United States had only 61 people in prison for every 100,000 people in the population. That’s just above one-twentieth of one percent. It’s a tiny figure that reflects just how rare incarceration was.

By 1923, the federal prison system had grown to 3 prisons, but the state system had the same number of facilities. The prison population had grown but it was growing only ever so slightly faster than the overall population in the period. In 1923, the incarceration rate in the United States was, by Census Bureau figures, 74 per 100,000.

Drawing state legislative districts somewhat on the basis of population became more prevalent around this time, but there was not a clear federal requirement that states must regularly redistrict on the basis of strict population equality until a series of court cases beginning in 1963. Prison populations were, at worst, very minimal blips in the data.

Until the 1990 Census, when the incarceration rate shot to 292, there was very little change in the portion of Americans that were confined in state or federal prisons. By 2000, the number of prisons had skyrocketed to 1,668 and the prison incarceration rate had risen to 478 per 100,000. That’s almost one half of one percent of the U.S. population being in state or federal prison. (If jails were included, the numbers would be higher at 702 per 100,000 but historical comparisons would not be possible.)

Incarceration is of course not evenly distributed in the population, and the racial disparity has been increasing. In 1923, Blacks were incarcerated at a rate 4 times higher than Whites. By 2000, the disparity had almost doubled. At the time of the 2000 Census, just under 3.5% of Black men were in prison and being counted as “residents” not of their homes but of often distant prison towns.

If we want a fair and accurate count of every American community, then the Census Bureau must change how it counts incarcerated people. Two hundred years ago, both our population and how we used Census data were quite different. Only the two most recent Censuses were seriously distorted by high incarceration, and if the Census Bureau changes policy soon, they can be the last.