Professor of Law finds a serious problem with the Census Bureau’s approach to counting the incarcerated

by Alison Walsh, July 26, 2016  

In his letter to the Census Bureau (Word) regarding the Residence Rules and Residence Situations, Professor of Law and empirical economist James J. Prescott argues that counting incarcerated people in the wrong place is harmful to his profession and beyond.

I use data in my work, and I know how important data can be, both in arriving at truth and in helping us understand the world. It also affects the world, as you well know.

That’s why inaccurate population counts can have such a harmful effect on several levels.

Counting incarcerated people in the wrong place inflates the political power of people who live near prisons, when those counts are used for redistricting or other purposes. As you can imagine, this practice has serious repercussions for state legislative decisions that impact incarceration, but also it can have a huge impact on representational equality in the small communities that host the facilities.

Professor Prescott is a resident of Michigan, “a state at the forefront of how to deal with such population quirks.” Michigan law treats Census data as “the default source of data, but then creates an exemption for cases where the Bureau’s data falls short of Michigan’s standards of accuracy (such as counting incarcerated people in the wrong place).”

Instead of leaving states like Michigan to work around this shortcoming, Professor Prescott urges the Bureau to count incarcerated people at their home addresses. This will ensure that Census data can truly be “the best data for redistricting.”

As Professor Prescott explains, the decision of where to count incarcerated people influences more than prison-adjacent district lines and county seats. “I believe that a strong democracy and fair criminal justice policy depend on a population count that accurately represents all communities.”

Despite the far-reaching consequences described by Professor Prescott – as well as 154 other individuals and organizations – the Census Bureau announced plans to continue counting incarcerated people as residents of prison locations. Advocates are planning another round of comments to convince the Census Bureau it has made a mistake.

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  • September 21, 2016:
    Executive Director Peter Wagner will be speaking at Claremont McKenna College in California. Details TBA.

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