Census Debate: Where Do Prisoners Live?

Monday, April 27, 2009

For some politicians, the inclusion of inmates in local populations as part of the U.S. Census means everything. State Senator Elizabeth O’C. Little’s (R-NY) district in upstate New York is known as “Little Siberia” because of its vast physical size (larger in square miles than Rhode Island and Connecticut combined) and the 13,500 “constituents” who reside in one of the 13 prisons located in the area. If the prisoners weren’t included in the census count, the district would have to be redrawn and expanded to qualify for a state Senate seat. The same is true of six other Upstate New York districts.

Little is not alone among Republican politicians who rely on prisoner counts in certain rural districts. As more people move to urban settings, rural districts have become even more dependant on prisoners, whose numbers have grown over time because of mandatory sentencing laws.
Some civil liberties groups have begun to argue that the U.S. Census Bureau should not count prisoners in districts where they are incarcerated, since the practice distorts how many voting-eligible people there are in a particular seat. Representatives of such seats tend to be more conservative and supportive of the tough-on-crime measures that feed prison systems.
One plan, supported by the NAACP and by urban political leaders, would count prisoners at their last known address before entering prison.
-Noel Brinkerhoff
Before Census, a Debate Over Prisoners (by Keith Richburg, Washington Post)
Changing How the Census Bureau Counts People in Prison (by Peter Wagner, Prisoners of the Census)


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