New tool shows how prisons skew county demographics

by Peter Wagner, October 20, 2006  

The Prison Policy Initiative frequently receives requests from people in rural counties asking for data showing how the Census Bureau’s method of counting people in prisons skews county demographics. Even though prisoners cannot participate in the local community, the Census Bureau nevertheless counts them as residents of the county where they are incarcerated. We have published a number of national maps illustrating the problem and have posted tables showing some of the extreme cases, but we have never made the underlying data available to the public.

Today, the Prison Policy Initiative rolls out a new addition to our groundbreaking April 2004 report, Too big to ignore: How counting people in prisons distorted Census 2000: interactive data tables. The report’s findings include the discovery that 21 counties have at least 21% of their Census population behind bars, and that in 173 counties, more than half of the Black population is incarcerated.

This new tool allows you to search for individual counties and to receive separate demographic data for the total Census population, the incarcerated population, and the resident population.

For example, the tool allows people interested in Franklin County, New York to quickly learn that 11% of the Census population is people in prison. Ninety three percent of Franklin County’s large Black population is a result of this Census counting quirk.

The tool also allows researchers to search by state and compare different counties.

The interactive data tables can be accessed at http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/toobig/datasearch.php.

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