Distorting political reality — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial

by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board, March 17, 2006

Juneau County is the 43rd fastest-growing county in the country, owing to a nearly 5% increase in population between 2004 and 2005. Put bluntly, Juneau County’s gain is Milwaukee County’s pain.

Of the gain of 1,251 people, 950 were inmates at the relatively new New Lisbon Correctional Institution.

The pain comes in how the U.S. Census Bureau counts prison inmates. The prison is viewed as inmates’ “usual residence,” the standard the bureau uses to count us all. But those census numbers are traditionally used, for instance, in redrawing state political and congressional boundaries every 10 years and in disbursing federal funds.

This serves to distort political and fiscal realities. For instance, according to the state Department of Corrections, the Juneau prison currently has 1,006 inmates, 10 of whom were convicted from Juneau County. So, 996 were convicted elsewhere, 453 of these from Milwaukee County. Extrapolate these numbers for all state prisons. See the problem?

A solution: Count where inmates are from, not where they’ve been forced to live. Have that money that comes with their headcount go to where their kids live and go to school. Have their numbers counted for the homes they will in all likelihood return to.

Congress has asked the Census Bureau to report on how it could change the way it counts inmates, who now number about 1.5 million nationally. The National Academy of Sciences is also doing a study.

Yes, inmates really live in prison, but in no sense are they part of the community in which they are imprisoned. The census must count every U.S. resident, but it needn’t count them this way.

Neither Congress nor the Census Bureau really needs a report here. The bureau should change how it counts inmates, and if it doesn’t, Congress should mandate it.

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