AGs should take an active role in ensuring an accurate 2020 Census. Part of that is tackling prison gerrymandering.
by Aleks Kajstura,
October 11, 2018
Yesterday John Thompson, the most recent Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, and Robert Yablon, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin published a briefing for state attorneys general. The brief urges attorneys general to start planning for the 2020 Census now, and highlights key issues facing the states, including prison gerrymandering:
…[A]ttorneys general can spur reflection and reform when it comes to how their jurisdictions use census data. Although the federal government must rely on the Census Bureau’s actual enumeration for purposes of congressional apportionment, states often have more flexibility to use adjusted numbers or to decouple state programs from census data. By way of example, the Census Bureau counts prisoners at their incarceration site rather than at their prior place of residence.
This practice, which some dub “prison gerrymandering,” has long been controversial because it serves to shift political representation … toward communities with correctional facilities and away from prisoners’ home communities. Seeing this as inequitable, a handful of states have rejected the Census Bureau’s approach and reallocate prisoners to their communities of origin when counting their populations for redistricting and other purposes.
Four states and over 200 counties and municipalities already avoid prison gerrymandering, but more work needs to be done.
Efforts to end prison gerrymandering often focus on state legislative action, but as Thompson and Yablon point out, attorneys general play an important role in ensuring equal representation by advising redistricting bodies to comply with principles of one person, one vote. In fact attorneys general already have a long history of guiding municipalities and counties to avoid prison gerrymandering in city councils and county boards even when the state legislatures continue to draw districts based on prisons rather than people.
Census Bureau announcement means another decade of prison gerrymandering. State-by-state reforms are urgent.
February 7, 2018
For Immediate Release — Today, the U.S. Census Bureau announced how it will define residence for the 2020 Census. Ignoring overwhelming public support for 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in how incarcerated persons are counted in the Census, the Bureau announced it is leaving in place the inaccurate and outdated practice of counting incarcerated persons as “residents” of the prison locations instead of their home communities. In response to this development, the Prison Policy Initiative released the following statement:
The Prison Policy Initiative is profoundly disappointed by the Census Bureau proposal to again count nearly 2 million people in the wrong place on Census day. Continuing this practice will ensure another decade of “prison gerrymandering” that unjustly awards extra political power to the regions that host prisons, perverting the principles of equal representation.
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 two years ago, over 99% of the 77,863 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 planning 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.”
“The Bureau’s decision is inconsistent with the way the ‘usual residence’ rule is applied to other similarly-situated people,” explained Legal Director Aleks Kajstura. “The Census Bureau is picking favorites based on economic and racial privilege: if boarding school students are deemed to live at home, then the same logic should be applied to incarcerated people.”
The Prison Policy Initiative, along with many other civil rights, voting rights, and criminal justice advocates, have long urged the Bureau to update its rules on incarcerated persons. As our research has demonstrated over the last two decades, the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people at the location of the facility harms our democracy at all levels of government.
When state and local officials use the Census Bureau’s prison count data attributing ‘residence’ to the prison location, 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. Treating a prison as a “usual residence” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of incarceration. The critical issue is that while a prison itself seems permanent, the people located there on any given day are not. 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.
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. Today’s decision continues to sacrifice the accuracy of the Census and harm communities of color.
Despite this major disappointment, the advocates noted two positive developments and pledged to redouble their efforts to help states make the data suitable for redistricting. The Bureau is planning on publishing correctional facility populations early — at the same time as the main redistricting data files that they send to the states. And the Bureau is offering to help states with the number crunching required to adjust the redistricting data on their own even as it leaves people across the country at the mercy of an ad hoc approach to equal representation.
The earlier data publication will make the data adjustments easier for states that end prison gerrymandering on their own, and will be particularly useful for states with short redistricting deadlines. This data will give redistricting officials the Census counts of people in correctional facilities at the location of the facility – enabling states to subtract incarcerated people from the prison location and, in conjunction with the state’s own home address data, reallocate them back home for that state’s redistricting.
The Prison Policy Initiative has long argued that the Census Bureau is in the best position to end prison gerrymandering nationwide, and the organization hopes that, by 2030, the Bureau’s residence rules will reflect reality. But with 2020 and redistricting just around the corner, today’s disappointing announcement makes it all the more urgent that more states pass legislation to end prison gerrymandering in their states.