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January 30, 2006 - Washington Post (DC)

Census Bureau, Activists Debate How and Where to Count Inmates

By Zachary A. Goldfarb

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Since the first U.S. census in 1790, there has been a rule for keeping track of the convicts sitting in prisons: They are counted in the state and region where they are serving their time, not necessarily the place they did their crime or will call home once they are out of the joint.

How to count inmates historically has not been a big issue. But the fast-expanding prison population -- now about 1.5 million -- is prompting a debate because government spending and electoral district boundaries are in part decided by population. Opponents say the practice unfairly rewards rural, often sparsely populated regions where many prisons are built, at the expense of the cities where many prisoners had resided.

"For people in prison, their bodies count but their voices don't," said Kirsten Levingston, director of the criminal justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "Their presence in the tabulation column expands the influence of those who have an incentive to keep them in prison, not those who need the resources to help keep them out."

Now, after a congressional directive, the Census Bureau is studying what it would take to change the policy, and the National Academy of Sciences will also report on the question.

The issue pits the bureau, resistant to change its long-standing procedure, against activists who say that the practice results in misleading demographic data and large distortions in the size of electoral districts. It also pits rural lawmakers against urban ones.

The Census Bureau, which is due to issue a report on the feasibility of altering the practice next month, says it follows a consistent benchmark in counting the population, applying a "usual residence" rule to determine where people live -- that is, where they eat and sleep. It has been used for other mobile populations, including college students and people on military bases.

"Once you destroy the foundation for the basis for where people are counted, it becomes very difficult for people to take an accurate census," said Edwin Byerly, head of the bureau's population and housing programs branch.

The U.S. prison population has been rising steadily for decades, a result of the sharp increase in urban poverty, the influx of addictive drugs and stiffer penalties for crime. From 1993 to 2003, the population increased about 60 percent. The big numbers have prompted criminal justice activists to focus on the census effects. They have long worried about racial disparities in the penal system and a high rate of recidivism.

In New York state, activists find what they consider the most glaring example of the distortions created by the census policy. More than 40,000 convicts from New York City, in the southern part of the state, are housed in prisons upstate. Seven state Senate districts would not qualify as districts without their prison population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, an activist group.

More worrisome, the group says, is that two politicians from those areas, Republican state Sens. Dale Volker and Michael Nozzolio, lead the committees on the legal code and crime and have been enthusiastic backers of long-standing, controversial laws that require long prison sentences for drug crimes.

"If there are 10,000 people in prison on drug issues and you count them back home, that could help bring more money to fight the drug war," said U.S. Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a Democrat who represents the Bronx, a high-crime borough of New York City. He added the provision to a bill last year that ordered the Census Bureau to study the issue.

Last year, state Sen. Eric Schneiderman (D), who represents parts of New York City, introduced a bill that would order adjustments for the purpose of redistricting. It is stalled because of resistance from lawmakers representing rural areas. Nozzolio and Volker declined to comment for this article, but in past news accounts, Volker has acknowledged that if they could vote, inmates who are housed in the eight prisons in his district would not vote for him.

In Virginia, activists say a similar shift affects demographic measures and education funding. Several years ago, the Census Bureau reported that Sussex County, in southern Virginia, was the nation's fastest-growing county. But the population actually declined if inmates living in the two maximum-security prisons that opened in the late 1990s were not included, according to the Brennan Center. The population increase results in additional state funding of about $115,000 for primary and secondary education, said Eric Lotke, who studied the issue with a grant from the Soros Foundation.

But Rebecca Smith, who oversees the Sussex County school system's multimillion-dollar budget, said such a small increase does not really register.

Such views reflect a frustrating problem for activists: It is not clear how much regions with prisons actually gain and how much urban, high-crime areas would receive if they got the prisoners back as part of their census count. The ambiguity is compounded by another problem -- whether it is logistically possible for the Census Bureau to count prisoners at their home addresses. Prisons do not take a consistent approach to recording where their inmates came from.

Columbia University public affairs professor Kenneth W. Prewitt, who directed the Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001, frames the problem as one of "fairness" vs. "accuracy."

Originally, Prewitt was skeptical about arguments that prisoners should be counted where they lived before incarceration. But ultimately he was convinced that the "conditions in which prisoners are relocated" are unique -- they are forced to move to another region and then often required to return to where they had lived before.

He concluded that "there is no doubt that there are distortions" in government spending and districting created by the census method of counting. But, he said, given the arduous task of locating inmates' homes, switching count procedures could lead to greater inaccuracy.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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