Prison boom and redistricting revolution call for new approach to data collection

At the last Census, the Bureau counted over 2 million incarcerated people in the wrong place.

by Alison Walsh, July 21, 2016

For over 14 years, our work has focused on ending the distortion of democracy caused by the Census Bureau’s decision to count incarcerated people as “residents” of correctional facilities. But when we wrote our comment to the Census Bureau in response to the 2015 federal register notice on Residence Rule and Residence Situations, we began by citing another expert on the subject. Former Census Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt summarized the problem over a decade ago: “Current census residency rules ignore the reality of prison life.”

Director Prewitt’s statement reflected the changing realities of incarceration across America. As we explain, “the usual residence rule is outdated and produces inaccurate data because of two relatively recent changes: the prison boom and the apportionment revolution that requires decennial redistricting at all levels of government on the basis of population.”

A bit of background on the prison boom:

The prison boom began in the 1970s, but its impact on the 1980 Census was, from a national viewpoint, modest. In fact, the Bureau didn’t even see it as necessary to mention incarcerated household members on the census form until the 1990 Census. But by 2000, the incarceration rate was more than four times higher than just two decades earlier. So the Bureau’s data did not result in a significant harm to our democracy until after the 2000 and 2010 Censuses.

At the last Census, the Bureau counted over 2 million incarcerated people in the wrong place.

The sheer size of the incarcerated population is not the only factor that undermines the accuracy of current Census data. Two other factors make the prison miscount even worse.

First, while the popular perception may be that most people in prisons and jails are serving long sentences, the opposite is actually true. The typical state prison sentence is only two or three years, and the incarcerated people are frequently shuffled between facilities at the discretion of administrators. For example, statistics in New York State show that the median time an incarcerated person has been at his or her current facility is just over 7 months. […]

Further, a stark and significant racial disparity in who goes to prison compounds the impact of a growing prison population. Our analysis of 2010 Census data shows that Blacks are incarcerated at 5 times the rate of non-Hispanic Whites, and Latinos are incarcerated at a rate almost two times higher than non-Hispanic Whites.

Our letter to the Census Bureau uses data from our 2015 report, The Racial Geography of Mass Incarceration. While many studies have discussed racial disparities within the prison population, this data reveals that stark racial and ethnic disparities exist between the prison population and the people directly outside the prison walls.

[W]e reviewed the magnitude of the gulf between the incarcerated population and the surrounding counties; finding 161 counties where incarcerated Blacks outnumber free Blacks, and 20 counties where incarcerated Latinos outnumber free Latinos. In many counties, the disparity is particularly stark.

Counting incarcerated people as residents of prison locations creates misleading demographic data and gives these counties a false appearance of diversity.

Virtually all — 98% — of New York state’s prison cells were located in state senate districts that were disproportionately White, diluting the votes of African-American and Latino voters. Similarly, in Connecticut, 75% of the state’s prison cells were in state house districts that were disproportionately White.

Modern redistricting rules also require more precise population data.

The early Censuses were primarily concerned with the relative population of each state for the purposes of apportionment. In the 1960s, however, the Supreme Court’s “one person one vote” cases, which require regular population-based redistricting at the state and local level, changed that. And the Census Bureau quickly became the data source for redistricting because it had the ability to provide accurate data down to the block level.

But it is precisely this need — accurate block level data — that is most dramatically undermined by the Bureau’s current interpretation of the usual residence rule. The Census is using a method that tabulates 1% of our entire adult population — and 6.4% of our Black adult male population — in the wrong location.”

Local governments, and even entire states, have taken it upon themselves to find solutions to the problem of prison gerrymandering within their borders. But a national solution depends on the Census Bureau.

Many of the most dramatic instances of prison gerrymandering are concentrated in just a handful of states like Minnesota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, where state constitutions or state law appear to prohibit the cities and counties from adjusting the Bureau’s data when drawing their districts without regard to the absurd and undemocratic results. For example, the Minnesota statutes declare “When used in reference to population, ‘population’ and ‘inhabitants’ mean that shown by the last preceding federal decennial census. […]

To address all of these problems experienced by redistricting data users in state and local governments, the only viable solution is for the Census Bureau to update its interpretation of the residence rule for incarcerated people and count this growing part of our population in the right place – at home.

Despite the evidence we — and 154 other organizations and individuals — presented, the Census Bureau proposes to continue counting incarcerated people where they happen to be on Census day. To voice your opposition to this policy, submit your comment to the Census Bureau by August 1.

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