by Peter Wagner, March 28, 2005

New York’s conservative State Senator Dale Volker is glad prisoners can’t vote, because if they did, as he told Newhouse News Service, “They would never vote for me.” Given Volker’s role as the leading defender of the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, prisoner opposition to Volker might not be surprising. But that Volker, who represents a mostly white rural part of the state, would care who the state’s mostly Black, Latino and urban prisoners might vote for is, on the surface, surprising. The explanation is that Volker owes his seat to a once-obscure Census Bureau glitch that credits the prison location with the population of prisoners involuntarily incarcerated there. Without credit for the 8,951 prisoners in his district, Volker’s sparsely populated rural district would need to be redrawn.

Our modern conception of democracy — based on the One Person, One Vote rule that requires legislative districts to be redrawn each decade to contain roughly equal numbers of people — is now skewed by the Census Bureau’s outdated method of counting incarcerated people. The Bureau developed the “usual residence rule” for determining where people are counted for the first Census in 1790. While the rule for other special populations like students and military have evolved over time, the method of counting prisoners remains mired in the past. In 1790, this rule might have made sense, because the Census Bureau had a far simpler purpose: to count the number of people in each state, in order to determine their relative populations for purposes of Congressional reapportionment. It did not matter — for purposes of comparing New York’s population to New Jersey’s — whether an incarcerated person was counted at home in New York City or in the remote Attica Prison, as long as they were counted in the right state. Although our society and our uses for Census data have changed radically since 1790, the Census’ method of counting prisoners has unfortunately remained the same.

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by Peter Wagner, March 21, 2005

The U.S. Census currently counts prisoners as residents of the correctional facility, despite the requirement in many state constitutions that incarceration does not change a residence. Because prisons tend to be built far from the communities where most prisoners originate, when states rely on federal census data to redraw their legislative district lines, they unwittingly violate their own constitutions and distort the distribution of political power in their states.

Although the use of incarceration and sentence lengths have greatly increased in recent decades, the statistics of the New York State Department of Correctional Services underscore the wisdom of the state constitutional requirement 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.” N.Y. Const. art. II, § 4.

Incarceration meets neither the voluntary nor the intent to remain requirements of residence. Prisoners not choose to move to a prison town, they are sent there against the will by the state. Despite ever-increasing sentence lengths, the public perception that most prisoners will never be released is unfounded. In New York State in 2000, the median time served in custody is 24 months. That same median prisoner will be eligible for release in less than 15 months. Incarceration is merely a temporary absence from home, not the creation of a new residence that severs ties to the old.

New York State publishes another statistic that emphasizes how temporary and involuntary a prisoner’s presence in the prison location is: In New York State, the median time served in the current facility is less than 7 months. The average prisoner might be in more than 5 different prisons during his or her sentence, each at the discretion of the Department of Corrections.

Counting prisoners as residents of the prison location might make sense for the Census Bureau and the national count, but it is an inadequate way of determining where a state’s population resides for purposes of distributing political power within a state. Either the Census Bureau needs to update its methods, or states need to begin developing new ways to count their population.

by Peter Wagner, March 14, 2005

The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as if they were residents not of their homes but of the prison’s location. When states like New York ignore their own constitutional requirement that incarceration does not change a residence and use Census data to draw legislative districts, the result is to transfer political power from high incarceration neighborhoods to the areas that contain the prisons.

I’ve previously written about the regional bias implicit in the arrangement. Sixty-six percent of the New York State’s prisoners come from New York City, but 91% of the state’s prison cells are located in the upstate region.

Even more critical is how this impacts the political power of Blacks and Latinos in the state compared to Whites. New York State is 62% White, but 82% of the state’s prison population is Black or Latino.

Virtually all — 92% — of the prison cells are located in state Senate districts that are disproportionately White for the state.

If New York State wants to draw districts that accurately and fairly represent the population of the state, it needs to encourage the Census Bureau to change how it counts prisoners.

Note: The methodology for this article draws its inspiration from Paul Street’s article about Illinois counties: The Color and Geography of Prison [PDF]. This article relies on the new Figure 15 in my 2002 report, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York. Consistent with that report and how the New York Legislature and Department of Correctional Services count race and ethnicity, I’ve used the term “White” to mean “Non-Hispanic White” as counted in the U.S. Census. To produce the 92% figure, I calculated from Figure 15 that New York was 62% Non-Hispanic White. I then filtered Figure 15 to show just those legislative districts that were 62% or more Non-Hispanic White, and added up the number of prisoners in each of those districts. The result was 92% of the state prison population in districts that were disproportionately White. You can also see this same analysis for Senate districts, where 98% of prisoners are incarcerated in disproportionately White Senate districts.

by Peter Wagner, March 7, 2005

State legislators in Georgia are currently redrawing the districts of Georgia’s Congressional delegation, but by relying on Census data that counts prisoners as residents of the prison location, they are unwittingly diluting the votes of Georgia residents who do not live near prisons.

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