Fixing the Census Bureau’s mistakes is admirable, but not every government can do it

by Peter Wagner, January 5, 2006  

In past articles I have celebrated the efforts of jurisdictions to adjust the federal census data so that it meets their needs and people are counted in the right place. These efforts are vivid evidence that people would prefer that the Census counted incarcerated people differently. However, that these jurisdictions can fix the Census Bureau’s mistakes does not mean the Bureau should continue to make them. In order to fairly serve its data users in state and local government, the Census Bureau must change how it counts prisoners. As I will show, it is not only inconvenient for data users to fix the Census Bureau’s mistakes, for some communities it would be impossible for practical or legal reasons.

In New York State, the state constitution declares that incarceration does not change a residence. In rural Franklin County, where almost 11% of the population reported in the Census is incarcerated prisoners from elsewhere in the state, the chair of the county legislature called ignoring the prisoners during redistricting a no-brainer. He was right. It made no sense to draw a district around the prisons in the town of Malone that was would be 2/3rd prisoners who did not live in the county. But there is another relevant issue: It was possible for Franklin County to take the 2000 Census data, and two years later, take the prisoners out and be left with just the actual residents of Franklin County.

The New York City Council — in whose districts most of the prisoners counted in Franklin County actually belong to — had no such choice. When they drew their districts in 2002, it was too late to put the prisoners back in to their Census data because the Census Bureau didn’t collect this information. In my 2002 Importing Constituents report, I was able to use correctional data to calculate that the Census Bureau credited 43,740 New York City residents to upstate prison towns, but those records didn’t say exactly where in New York City those prisoners reside. Taking the prisoners out is easy, but putting them back in after the fact is a different matter altogether when the Census Bureau didn’t ask the right questions about residence.

A different, legal, problem exists with some state level adjustments. Kansas currently adjusts the federal census to count students and military at their home addresses for purposes of redistricting. The state starts the planning for this about a year before the federal census is undertaken and then there is a relatively simple process of fixing the federal census data when it arrives. Illinois and New York State currently have bills pending that would create similar processes in those states for prisoner counting. This is not the ideal situation because the U.S. Census Bureau could make this change at less cost, but it would work.

Unfortunately, not every state that wants to can follow suit with a simple change in their statutes. In Massachusetts, for example, such a statute would violate a 1990 amendment to the state constitution that the “federal census shall be the basis for determining the representative districts”. Massachusetts, which was the last state to abolish its state census to rely on the federal census precisely because its top court viewed the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of usual residence to be incompatible with the state constitution’s definition of “inhabitant”, is now stuck. Unless it changes the state constitution yet again, Massachusetts is forced to use Census data regardless of how illogically the Census Bureau may count the population. While the state constitutions in New York and Illinois have some flexibility on what data is used for redistricting, many other states are in the same situation as Massachusetts and must use whatever the federal Census provides. It is therefore critical that the Census Bureau change how it counts prisoners if every state is to be able to fairly draw legislative districts to contain equal numbers of actual residents.

Counting prisoners at the facility probably made sense at the first Census in 1790 when few people were in prison and when the data was not used for redistricting. Things are different now, and the data collection methods need to change. Jurisdictions that are impatient waiting for the Census to update its methodology should be commended for taking matters in to their own hands. But we can’t pretend that every jurisdiction has the practical ability or even the legal option to fix the Census Bureau’s mistakes after the fact.

If we want an efficient national fix to the problem of where prisoners are counted in the Census, that solution needs to come from the Census Bureau itself.

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