Texas bill shows states could correct Census counts of prisoners

by Peter Wagner, July 19, 2004

As I wrote in May, there are 3 ways to fix how the U.S. Census counts prisoners:

  1. The Census could change its methodology
  2. States could adjust the counts after the fact
  3. States can ignore the federal Census and bring back their state Censuses.

The first option is the best, but the others are far more practical than they may sound at first glance. One state already does something quite similar: Kansas adjusts how students and the military are counted.

In 2001, Texas Representative Harold Dutton introduced a bill to restore Texas prisoners to their home addresses prior to redistricting. Although the bill was not ultimately successful, the bill was approved by the Elections committee and does illustrate one approach that could be taken by states if the Census Bureau does not change its policy.

The bill would have required the operators of all public and private prisons in Texas to submit to the Texas Controller a report containing the name, age, gender, ethnicity and pre-incarceration address of each person counted in the Census as a resident of the prison. The Controller would then deduct these persons from the Census tracts with the prisons and restore them to their home Census tracts.

The bill is notable for two other facts:

  1. The bill puts state and private agencies on notice that they must collect this data. (While most state Departments of Corrections keep extremely detailed demographic records, some, such as Maryland, do not.)
  2. Unlike the approach taken in Kansas with students and the military, out-of-state prisoners are retained at their prison addresses rather than being deleted from the redistricting dataset. Representative Dutton’s approach seems to be fairer than the Kansas approach at ensuring that everyone is represented somewhere.

It is certainly possible for states to accept U.S. Census data, modify it to correct for how special populations are counted in the Census, and then rely on that modified data in their redistricting. But the ideal solution would be for the U.S. Census to take into account the huge growth in incarceration as well as the modern requirements of “one person one vote” and start counting people in prison as residents not of the prison town but of their home communities.

Source: Thanks to Will Harrell for drawing this bill to my attention.

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