by Peter Wagner, February 28, 2005

On February 25, New York Deputy Minority Leader Senator Eric T. Schneiderman introduced S2754 to prevent the way the U.S. Census counts prisoners from distorting democracy in New York.

The U.S. Census counts prisoners as if they were residents of the prison location rather than of their pre-incarceration homes. Like most states, New York currently relies on Census Bureau data when drawing its legislative districts, but its constitution defines residence quite differently than the Census. The New York constitution reads that “no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence, by reason of his presence or absence … while confined in any public prison.”

Many states have similar constitutional clauses, but until recently, states were unaware that by relying on Census Bureau data they were violating their own constitutions. The Census Bureau counts prisoners this way as a result of an outdated practice that predates modern uses of Census data for intra-state redistricting. There is currently a national movement to convince the Census Bureau to change how it counts prisoners, but states like New York and Illinois are showing that they are not hostage to Census Bureau counting decisions. As long as a state began planning early, it would be possible to adjust Census counts of prisoners prior to redistricting.

The New York bill requires the State Board of Elections to create a specially modified version of the Census Bureau’s redistricting data for use in congressional, state senate and state assembly redistricting. The various corrections agencies in the state would be required to submit home address information to the Board of Elections, who in turn would change the Census data so it would reflect New York’s prisoners being counted at home rather than at the prison location. The Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment would then be required to use this corrected data in drawing new districts.

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by Peter Wagner, February 21, 2005

Back in 2000, the Census Bureau counted prisoners as if they actually lived in the town that contains the prison. According to recently published analysis, this administrative quirk reduced the population of the communities where most prisoners come from and swelled the population of the rural communities that host prisons. Each decade, census population data is used to draw legislative districts, so prisoners makes prison towns seem more populous — and therefore receive more political clout — than their population should have warranted.

Making matters worse, all states but Maine and Vermont bar state prisoners from voting, so prisoners are unable to influence the often pro-prison-expansion legislators whose clout they enhance. At the same time, the urban legislators who so frequently favor proven alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment see their population and political clout diminished.

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by Peter Wagner, February 14, 2005

On February 2, Illinois Deputy Majority Leader Representative Arthur L. Turner introduced the Prisoner Census Adjustment Act to prevent the current U.S. Census practice of counting prisoners as residents of the prison location from distorting democracy in Illinois. While other advocates have been working to convince the U.S. Census to start counting prisoners as residence of their pre-incarceration homes, Chicago-based attorney Dan Johnson-Weinberger has been working with Representative Turner to craft a state-based solution to ensure that future Illinois legislative districts match the actual population of Illinois communities.

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by Peter Wagner, February 7, 2005

The Census Bureau counts prisoners not at their homes but as if they were residents of the town that contained the prison. This administrative quirk reduces the population of the communities where most prisoners come from and swells the population of rural communities that house prisons. With the incarceration rate now 4 times higher than it was 20 years ago, and with prisons increasingly being built in communities far from where most prisoners originate, what was once a trivial matter is now a critical one.

When the Census began in 1790, uses for the data were limited. Population statistics were rarely used for planning purposes until the 20th century. It was not until the 1960s that state legislatures were required to periodically redraw legislative district lines to comply with the “One Person One Vote” rule of equal numbers of people in each legislative district. In 1790, the Census’ sole role was to count the number of people in each state to determine their relative populations for purposes of Congressional reapportionment. It didn’t matter — for purposes of comparing Nevada’ population to Utah’s — whether an incarcerated person was counted at home or in the Nevada State Prison, as long as they were counted in the right state. Census data is used very differently today than it was in 1790, and our society has changed radically, but the Census’ method of counting prisoners has unfortunately remained the same.

According to a series of “Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout” reports released in December, Nevada, Montana and Idaho rely on U.S. Census data to draw their legislative districts. Districts are redrawn each decade so that each districts is of equal size based on the number of people living there. Having equal numbers of people in each legislative district ensures that each person in that district has equal access to government. This concept is known as the “One Person One Vote” rule, but it breaks down when the U.S. Census data does not reflect the actual population of the state.

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