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Rural Michigan newspaper calls for change in Census counts of prisoners

by Peter Wagner, February 23, 2006  

On Feb. 9, the Jackson City Patriot in Jackson Michigan published an editorial calling for the Census Bureau to change how it counts incarcerated people because it “is time to stop reporting a misleading census profile about prison communities.”

Counting Convicts: Do it here or there?

Editorial published in the Jackson City Patriot, February 9, 2006

For 216 years, the U.S. Census has been counting prison convicts by the “usual residence” rule. That is, they’re counted in the place they hang their hats, eat and sleep — that is, where they are incarcerated. At Congress’ directive, the Census Bureau is considering whether a change is in order. We welcome the review.

Why would anyone want prisoners counted in any other way than by the “usual residence” rule? Because the flaws of that policy are becoming apparent.

Consider how census results skew reality right here in Blackman Township. We’ll frame a series of statements based on Blackman’s 2000 Census data and then offer some comments:

  • Blackman’s population is 22,500 — 63.2 percent male and 36.8 percent female.
  • By race, residents are 79.5 percent white and 17.2 percent black (the other 3.3 percent being other categories).
  • Per-capita income in Blackman is $18,708. That’s $3,460 below the state average. Curiously, the only age category in which Blackman residents exceed the state average is householders under 25. Their average income is about $3,000 more than the state average.
  • Blackman residents are poorly educated. Only 9.4 percent of its residents have a bachelor’s degree, compared to the state average of 13.7 percent; and only 3.5 percent have a master’s or other advanced degree, compared to 8.1 percent for the state as a whole.

Now, do these official census facts give a true profile of Blackman Township? No. They are so far from reality that it is a disservice to report them as fact. Here’s why: In one way or another, the profile suggested by these “facts” is skewed because of the inclusion of inmates as part of the populace.

How many inmates? Of Blackman’s official 22,500 residents, 7,244 are under the category of “institutionalized population.”

Now, a few questions: Does anyone believe that six of 10 Blackman residents are male when both the state and national averages are only 49 percent? That 17.2 percent of Blackman residents are black, when the county average is not even 8 percent? That per-capita income in Blackman is $3,460 below the state average? Or that Blackman is such a poorly educated township?

As we peruse Blackman’s census data, we can’t be sure any of those results have not been skewed in one way or another by the inmate populace.

Yet Blackman officials will never complain, for the township benefits from inmates. Much of state and federal revenue sharing (what is left of it) goes to counties, cities, townships and villages based on population. Stop counting prison inmates as part of Blackman, and you have a township of only 16,000 or so.

One option for the Census Bureau is to count inmates, not where they are incarcerated, but where they lived before. We do not favor that approach because the inmates are, well, not living there and not using the services offered by their hometowns. Police and fire services, for example, are eligible for state and federal grants, based on population.

Instead, we favor another solution for prison communities such as Blackman: Since prisoners are an isolated community, isolate them within the census. Give two profiles — one including prisoners, one without them. At present, we are assured that prisoners do not skew all data, but when we dig into specifics, it is clear that no one can say with certainty which statistics can be taken at face value, and which can’t.

Since taking a census is a federal task, this policy shift should be made at the federal level. It is time to stop reporting a misleading census profile about prison communities.