New report shows “Why the Census Bureau can and must start collecting the home addresses of incarcerated people”

by Peter Wagner, February 17, 2006  

In November 2005, the Appropriations Committee directed the Census Bureau to undertake a study of using “prisoners’ permanent homes of record, as opposed to their incarceration sites” in the decennial Census. Congress directed the Census Bureau to report its findings to Congress within 90 days. That report is expected soon.

In advance of that report and to aid the Census Bureau’s own investigation, Eric Lotke, Andrew Beveridge and I submitted a 24 page report to the Bureau on February 10: Why the Census Bureau can and must start collecting the home addresses of incarcerated people.

The report reviews the legal and practical reasons why the Census Bureau should change how it counts incarcerated people and then discusses the practical benefits that home-address enumeration would bring to Census Bureau operations.

Among other findings, the report reviews Census 2000 data for the Utah State Prison and the California State Prison at Lancaster — two facilities where the Census Bureau emphasized accuracy and distributed forms directly to prisoners rather than relying on administrative records — and finds that the Census Bureau received data of a very high quality. An analysis of the responses at those two prisons to Census long form Question 15 “Where did this person live 5 years ago?” shows that it is possible for the Bureau to enter prisons, distribute forms, collect home address information, and then process that data.

The report focuses on the two major groups that use the PL94-171 redistricting data set — state and local legislatures — and discuss how these two different groups are negatively impacted by the current method of enumerating prisoners. Finally, the report discusses in detail the different ways that the Census Bureau could change how it publishes Census data.

The Census Bureau’s report to Congress is expected soon. The next census is still more than 4 years away, but if the Census Bureau begins planning now, there is still time to test and implement even the largest of the proposals suggested in our report.