Census Bureau counts Oklahoma prisoners in wrong place; Access to state and county government distorted

Report finds 7 Okla. House districts meet federal minimum population requirements only because prison inmates are used to pad the districts' populations.

September 25, 2009

The federal Census counts prisoners as part of the local population, and that creates big problems for state and local government, charges a new report by the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative.

“Governments rely on the Census to count the population so they can update legislative districts,” said Prison Policy Initiative Executive Director and report co-author Peter Wagner. The Supreme Court’s “One Person One Vote” rule requires that legislative districts each contain the same number of people, so that each person has the same access to government.

Where prisoners are counted is a particularly acute problem in Oklahoma. “Oklahoma incarcerates a greater portion of its population than 46 other states, so crediting prisoners to the wrong communities has staggering effects on democracy,” said report co-author Elena Lavarreda.[1]

The report finds that 7 House districts meet federal minimum population requirements only because prison inmates are included in the count. By using Census Bureau counts of prison populations to pad out legislative districts, Oklahoma is inflating the votes of residents who live near prisons in violation of the Supreme Court’s “one person one vote” rule.

“The problem is even larger in some rural county board districts,” said Wagner. The report, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Oklahoma, finds rural county districts that are as much as 46% prisoners. “This allows the real residents of a district with a prison to unfairly dominate their county government.”

The report identifies 16 counties where prison populations have a large impact on democracy in county government, and applauds Greer County for rejecting the flawed Census counts and drawing districts without regard to the prison miscount.

The report calls on Oklahoma to lobby the Census Bureau to change how prisoners are counted in the future and to develop state solutions to protect the restricting process after the 2010 Census.

The report, “Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Oklahoma”, is available at http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/ok/

[1] Oklahoma Sentencing Commission, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prison Inmates at Midyear 2007, Spreadsheet table pim07at05.csv, June 2008. Oklahoma has 670 people serving a state prison sentence for every 100,000 people in the state. The 3 states with higher incarceration rates are Louisiana (857), Mississippi (723) and Texas (682).

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