Census Bureau proposes to count incarcerated people in the wrong place once again in 2020 Census, continues to distort democracy

Advocates should make their voices heard to demand a more accurate count

June 30, 2016

UPDATE: Comment deadline extended to September 1.
The Census Bureau has extended the deadline to submit comments to September 1, 2016, explaining: “Because of the scope of the proposed criteria, and in response to individuals and organizations who have requested more time to review the proposed criteria, the Census Bureau has decided to extend the comment period for an additional 31 days.”

Advocates should make their voices heard to demand a more accurate count

Prison Policy Initiative and Demos logos

Today, the U.S. Census Bureau released its proposal on how to implement residence guidelines for the 2020 Census. Ignoring overwhelming public input supporting a change in how incarcerated persons are counted in the Census, the Bureau announced it is leaving in place the inaccurate and outdated practice of counting incarcerated persons as "residents" of the prison location instead of their home communities. Interested stakeholders have until August 1 to submit further comments before this proposal becomes final. In response to this development the Prison Policy Initiative and Demos released the following statement:

Our organizations, and hundreds of allies around the country, are profoundly disappointed by the Census Bureau proposal to again count nearly 2 million people in the wrong place on Census day. Continuing this outdated practice will ensure an inaccurate 2020 Census and another decade of prison gerrymandering.

Counting incarcerated people as if they were “residents” of the correctional facility makes the Census less accurate for everyone: rural and urban communities; incarcerated persons and their families; governmental authorities trying to draw accurate redistricting plans; researchers trying to understand the demographics of local communities.

Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said “The Census Bureau blatantly ignored the overwhelming consensus urging a change in the Census count for incarcerated persons. When the Bureau asked for public comment on its residence rules last year, 96% of the comments regarding residence rules for incarcerated persons urged the Bureau to count incarcerated persons at their home address, which is almost always their legal address. By proposing to once again count incarcerated people as if they were residents of correctional facilities, the Census Bureau has simply disregarded input from the public, redistricting experts, and legislators.”

Demos and the Prison Policy Initiative, along with many other civil rights and criminal justice advocates, have long urged the Bureau to update its rules on incarcerated persons. According to Brenda Wright, Vice President of Policy and Legal Strategies at Demos, “The Bureau’s proposed rules will perpetuate the distortion of democracy that results from padding the population counts of communities with prisons.”

“When state and local officials use the Census Bureau’s prison count data attributing ‘residence’ to the prison,” Wright continued, “they give extra representation to the communities that host the prisons and dilute the representation of everyone else. This is harmful to rural communities that contain large prisons, because it seriously distorts redistricting at the local level of county commissions, city councils, and school boards. It also harms urban communities by not crediting them with the incarcerated population whose legal residence never changed.”

The Census Bureau defines “usual residence” as the place where a person “eats and sleeps most of the time”, but fails to follow that rule when counting incarcerated people. The majority of people incarcerated in Rhode Island, for example, spend less than 100 days in the state’s correctional facilities. If the same people were instead spending 100 days in their summer residence, the Bureau would count them at their regular home address. The Census Bureau continues to carve out an unexplained exception for incarcerated people in order to count them in the wrong place.

The Bureau’s failure to update its rules regarding incarcerated persons is particularly misguided given that the Bureau decided that other populations – deployed overseas military, and juveniles staying in residential treatment centers – should be counted in their home location even if they are sleeping elsewhere on Census Day. It made these changes even though there were far fewer public comments identifying these issues as causing the magnitude of problems that the public commentary on the prison miscount highlighted.

Counting incarcerated people at the location of the facility reduces the accuracy of Census data about communities of color. For example, because African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately incarcerated, counting incarcerated people in the wrong location is particularly bad for proper representation of African-American and Latino communities. “The Bureau’s counting method means that counties in upstate New York show up as wonderfully diverse in population – solely because there is a large prison in the county,” observed Wright. “It is truly disappointing that the Bureau has proposed to sacrifice the accuracy of the Census in a way that so clearly harms communities of color.”

The Bureau’s failure to update its residence rules is also creating legal problems because federal courts have started to recognize that the Bureau’s prison count can result in constitutional violations of one person, one vote requirements. There have already been successful Equal Protection challenges to prison gerrymandering in federal district courts in Jefferson County Florida and Cranston Rhode Island. The Bureau’s failure to change the way it counts incarcerated populations will ensure that these constitutional challenges continue into the coming decade.

The sole positive outcome in the Bureau’s proposal regarding incarcerated persons is to allow states to request individualized Census counts that reallocate incarcerated populations to their home addresses. This will make it somewhat easier for states to adopt their own legislation to count incarcerated persons in the right location. Four states (California, Delaware, Maryland and New York) have already adopted such reforms, and more should consider doing so now. Wagner pointed out that, “by making this option available, the Bureau is really acknowledging that its own counting rules do not work well for many states – a reality that should have prompted a full overhaul of the current rules on allocating incarcerated population. And people across the country will continue to be at the mercy of an ad hoc approach to equal representation.”

Stakeholders interested in a fair and accurate Census count in 2020 should make sure to submit comments to the Bureau by August 1 to explain why it must revise this proposal and count incarcerated persons at home in the 2020 Census.

3 responses:

  1. […] Demos and Prison Policy Initiative have this statement on the Census proposal, which […]

  2. […] released our statement on these developments, and we’re working on our comment to the Bureau now, but it would be useful […]

  3. […] June, the Census Bureau announced plans to continue counting incarcerated people as residents of their prison, not home, addresses in the […]

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