by New York Times, April 18, 2006

The Census Bureau tends to stamp its feet and shake its head no when asked to do things differently than it has in the past. It has been running true to form since late last year, when Congress ordered it to study the common-sense idea of counting inmates at their homes rather than at prison.

Prison inmates are denied the vote in all but two states, but are nonetheless counted as “residents” of prisons when the state legislatures draw up election districts based on the census data. This inflates the political power of prison districts, which are often in rural areas of the states, while diminishing the voting strength of the urban districts where the inmates actually live. It also causes some prison districts to collect more than a fair share of federal dollars earmarked for the poor.

Asked by Congress to consider remedies for this problem, the bureau responded with an obtuse and evasive report that supports the bad old status quo. The report sets up a straw man by suggesting that the desired change might require the costly and invasive procedure of interviewing every inmate. All that is really necessary is to treat inmates like everyone else. That means giving them questionnaires that ask, among other things, for their home addresses and interviewing them only when a form is not returned or when some other problem occurs.

The bureau could also ask corrections officials to begin collecting the information it needs. As was suggested recently by the Brennan Center for Justice, such a request would probably have the byproduct of improved record keeping among state corrections bureaus.

Congress should keep hounding the bureau until it stops stonewalling and fixes what is clearly a flaw in the census collection process.


by Peter Wagner, March 28, 2006

This is a letter I sent last week to the editor of the Tribune-Star in Terre Haute, Indiana responding to Mark Bennett’s column If a coalition of congressmen get their way, Vigo County and Congressional District 8 could be facing a serious population decrease.

Dear editor,

I share Mark Bennett’s concern that how prisoners are counted in the Census could become a “tug-of-war between cities and rural communities.” If that happens, it will obscure how the current Census policy hurts rural communities right now.

Bennett is right that counting prisoners at home would cost Vigo County some clout in the state legislature and in Congress. But while the 8th Congressional District has more prisoners than most — the district is 1% prisoners — that small amount of extra clout comes at a big price for local democracy.

The city of Terre Haute is divided in to 6 council districts, each of which has roughly the same Census population. The Supreme Court’s “One Person One Vote” rule requires districts to be drawn to contain the same number of people. In theory, this gives every resident of the city the same access to government regardless of where she or he lives.

I say “in theory” because the Census Bureau counted 1,764 prisoners at the United States Penitentiary as if they were residents of District 1 in southwest Terre Haute. The prisoners cannot vote, but the votes of the remaining 7,778 residents of District 1 have as much clout as the approximately 10,000 residents in each other district. Using prisoners as population gives each group of 8 residents in District 1 the same clout as 10 residents in other districts.

Left uncorrected, this problem is about to get worse. The federal prison complex has grown to contain 2,910 prisoners. If the next Census was taken today, the resulting District 1 would be 30% prisoners, giving each group of 7 District 1 residents the clout of 10 elsewhere in the city.

If the Census Bureau started counting prisoners at their home addresses, Terre Haute’s residents would have a more equal City Council, and there would be little impact on the city’s federal funding.

For example, many grant programs shun “per-capita income” statistics to use “household income” or “poverty status” because those statistics do not include prisoners and other group quarters populations. Still other grant programs require that institutional populations be deducted from the population figures. Simply put, most government programs are designed with sufficient precision that they are not affected by where prisoners are counted.

Ironically, the place that prisoner counts most frequently affect funding is in the distribution of funds within rural communities. Like our analysis of the impact on democracy, the biggest victims of this census policy are the rural residents who live near — but not immediately next to — large prisons.

Peter Wagner
Executive Director
Prison Policy Initiative


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?

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by Peter Wagner, February 23, 2006

On Feb. 9, the Jackson City Patriot in Jackson Michigan published an editorial calling for the Census Bureau to change how it counts incarcerated people because it “is time to stop reporting a misleading census profile about prison communities.”

Counting Convicts: Do it here or there?

Editorial published in the Jackson City Patriot, February 9, 2006

For 216 years, the U.S. Census has been counting prison convicts by the “usual residence” rule. That is, they’re counted in the place they hang their hats, eat and sleep — that is, where they are incarcerated. At Congress’ directive, the Census Bureau is considering whether a change is in order. We welcome the review.

Why would anyone want prisoners counted in any other way than by the “usual residence” rule? Because the flaws of that policy are becoming apparent.

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by Peter Wagner, February 17, 2006

In November 2005, the Appropriations Committee directed the Census Bureau to undertake a study of using “prisoners’ permanent homes of record, as opposed to their incarceration sites” in the decennial Census. Congress directed the Census Bureau to report its findings to Congress within 90 days. That report is expected soon.

In advance of that report and to aid the Census Bureau’s own investigation, Eric Lotke, Andrew Beveridge and I submitted a 24 page report to the Bureau on February 10: Why the Census Bureau can and must start collecting the home addresses of incarcerated people.

The report reviews the legal and practical reasons why the Census Bureau should change how it counts incarcerated people and then discusses the practical benefits that home-address enumeration would bring to Census Bureau operations.

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by Peter Wagner, January 5, 2006

In past articles I have celebrated the efforts of jurisdictions to adjust the federal census data so that it meets their needs and people are counted in the right place. These efforts are vivid evidence that people would prefer that the Census counted incarcerated people differently. However, that these jurisdictions can fix the Census Bureau’s mistakes does not mean the Bureau should continue to make them. In order to fairly serve its data users in state and local government, the Census Bureau must change how it counts prisoners. As I will show, it is not only inconvenient for data users to fix the Census Bureau’s mistakes, for some communities it would be impossible for practical or legal reasons.

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