New tool allows researchers to find correctional facilities in Census data

by Peter Wagner, December 13, 2004

As Rose Heyer and I wrote in Too Big to Ignore, How counting people in prisons distorted Census 2000, the Census Bureau’s decision to count incarcerated people as residents of the places with the prisons rather of their homes, leads to distorted data and some misleading conclusions about our communities. We wrote that statistics about size, growth, wealth, race, ethnicity and gender of communities are all affected.

Until recently, no online mapping tool existed to help you locate correctional facilities. The only two options were to hope that exactly what you needed has already been published on this website, or find the populations yourself in the particular tables of the text-based American Factfinder from the Census Bureau. Given the complexity of Census Bureau geography, this is complex task without the assistance of maps.

Bill Cooper of Fairdata2000 has added the various group quarters populations to his excellent online mapping tool for income, housing, language, and education statistics. The new tool allows researchers to look at counties or smaller levels of geography and see what percentage of the population consists of people in correctional facilities. He has also provided downloadable versions of this data to help other facilitate further analysis by more advanced users.

For example, I recently met a researcher who monitors bank compliance with fair lending laws. She said that it sometimes appears that a bank is not investing in an area in violation of the law, when in actuality the population in that area consists of people in a correctional facility not eligible to take out a mortgage.

Other organizations use maps that show the percentage of voting age people of various races that are not yet registered to vote in order to determine where voter-registration drives should take place. But a town that has markedly less enrolled voters than its neighbors may not be a prime target for expensive door to door efforts if all of the unregistered voters in the town are the product of a Census Bureau glitch that credits disenfranchised prisoners to the prison town.

This new tool makes it possible to find correctional populations in the Census Bureau data in a reasonable amount of time. When you see unexpected results in Census data, this new mapping tool allows you to confirm the most likely cause of unexpected results in the Census data.

Of course, if the Census Bureau updated its methodology and counted incarcerated people at their pre-incarceration residences; tools like this would not be necessary. The Census would then be able to fulfill its slogan of “Helping you make informed decisions” without the public needing to first double check on the Fairdata2000 site that their potential decisions are actually properly informed.

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