The Prison Policy Initiative, an organization that conducts research and advocacy on incarceration policy, today released the first analysis of how the Census Bureau's method of counting incarcerated people reduces the population of Texas' urban areas.
A little known quirk in the Census counts people in prison as if they were residents of the prison town. "This inflates the population of rural prison hosting areas, and shortchanges the urban areas most prisoners come from" said report co-author Rose Heyer. Texas' prison population grew five times larger from 1980 to 2000.
Twenty-five thousands residents of Harris County, and 20,000 Dallas residents were credited to the populations of the rural legislative districts that contain the majority of Texas' prisons, says the report which combines Census and state corrections data.
Changing the numbers changes how democracy works. "Miscounting prisoners changes the way that state legislative districts are drawn," said report co-author Peter Wagner. "This census policy creates an inaccurate picture of our communities, and state legislatures that rely on Census data likely violate the constitutional principle of one person one vote."
The report identifies one district, House District 13 (which includes Walker county, represented by Lois Kolkhorst) that counts among its census population 16,670 incarcerated people. The District is 11.97% prisoners, a higher figure than in any other state legislative district yet discovered in the United States. Prisoners can't vote in Texas, and on their release they will be returning to their home communities, but their presence at the prison town in the Census dilutes the votes of their family members back home. Says Wagner: "Every group of 88 residents in District 13 gets as much of a say over state affairs as 100 people in Houston or Dallas. The Supreme Court's 'One Person One Vote' rule was supposed to eliminate such large difference in voting power."
The report, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Texas, is part of a national series of studies funded by the Open Society Institute's Soros Justice Fellowship Program in New York City. Report co-author Peter Wagner is Soros Justice Fellow leading a national effort to change how the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people.
The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) conducts research and advocacy on incarceration policy. Its work starts with the idea that the racial, gender and economic disparities between the prison population and the larger society represent the grounds for a democratic catastrophe. PPI's concept of prison reform is based not only in opposition to a rising rate of incarceration, but in the search for a lasting solution to pressing social problems superior to temporarily warehousing our citizens in prisons and jails.
The Prison Policy Initiative is based in Northampton, Massachusetts. For more information about PPI or prison policy in general, visit http://www.prisonpolicy.org.