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Census Bureau’s Own Study Says Bureau Should Stop Miscounting Prisoners

I'm a little late on this, but since I've been following the issue for about a year and a half, I want to make note of an important development concerning how the Census Bureau counts people who are in prison.

Quick refersher: Many people are aware that the disproportionately Black and Latino population in US prisons cannot vote. Less widely discussed is the problem that the Census Bureau counts this largely Black and Latino population as residents of the places where they are imprisoned. All too frequently the prisons are located in predominantly white rural areas. This practice makes the redistricting process grossly unfair, diluting the votes of everyone in the state who lives outside the districts that maintain prisons.

The Prison Policy Initiative, which is the leading organization working to change how prisoners are counted in the US Census, announced last month that:

The National Research Council of the National Academies ... released a report calling for the Census Bureau to begin collecting the home addresses of people in prison and to study whether this alternative address should be used in the Census. The report, authored by leading demographers, statisticians and sociologists, was commissioned by the Census Bureau to reexamine where people should be counted in the Census....

The panel expressed deep concern about where people in prison were counted, stating that "the evidence of political inequities in redistricting that can arise due to the counting of prisoners at the prison location is compelling". The panel cited an article by Eric Lotke and Peter Wagner that "nearly 9% of all African-American men in their twenties and thirties live in prison" and that most prisons are located in largely White rural areas....

The National Research Council report called for the Census Bureau to initiate a major "research and testing program, including experimentation as a part of the 2010 Census" to evaluate assigning incarcerated people to other addresses outside the facility. The panel also recommended that that the Census Bureau rely less on administrative records and more on specialized forms and interviews to count people in prison.

Prison Policy Initiative Executive Director Peter Wagner and Soros Senior Justice Fellow Eric Lotke had earlier submitted a proposed finding and recommendation to the National Academy of Sciences [pdf]. In their submission, Wagner and Lotke elaborated on the problem that the Census Bureau needs to respond to:

Prisons present a significant distortion on local populations. Currently, there are more than 2 million people in prisons and jails. Since the 1980 Census, the percentage of Americans incarcerated in correctional facilities has increased four-fold, with more than 0.7% of Americans currently incarcerated in a prison or jail. For certain demographic groups, such as African-American men in their late 20s, more than 12% of the population is currently incarcerated.

Recent research has shown that correctional facilities are increasingly located in areas that are geographically and demographically far removed from the communities that most incarcerated people belong to. According to Department of Agriculture Demographer Calvin Beale, although non-metro counties contain only 20% of the national population, they are the host for 60% of new prison construction. In the 1990s, an astonishing 30% of new residents of upstate New York were people being sent to prison.

The result of counting large external populations of prisoners as local residents leads to misleading conclusions about the size and growth of communities. One study of incarcerated populations in the Census found 21 counties in the United States have at least 21% of their population in prison. Counties that see prisons close report that their populations declined when in fact they did not. Conversely, population growth reported by some counties is due to the importation of prisoners to a new correctional institution. If not for the construction of new prison cells, 56 counties the Census Bureau identified as growing during the 1990s would have reported declining populations.

Because Latinos and Blacks are incarcerated at three to seven times the rate of Whites, where incarcerated people are counted has tremendous implications for how Black and Latino populations are reflected in the Census. For this reason, the African-American subcommittee of the Census Bureau's Race and Ethnicity Advisory Committee recommended that the Census Bureau count prisoners as residents of their pre-incarceration addresses.

Following last month's release of the National Research Council report, Peter Wagner said the Council "has defined what a good faith examination of the feasibility of counting incarcerated people at their pre-incarceration addresses would look like. The Census Bureau should get to work today."

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • JDJ October 15, 2006, 4:55 am

    Another problem (no doubt related) concerns prisoners (disproportionately African American and male) are disenfranchised of their voting status in key status even AFTER they have served their sentences and are out. This link from blackprof.com delves into this problem. Great post.

  • Benjamin T. Greenberg November 12, 2006, 11:12 pm

    Jonathan, I meant to respond to your comment back when you wrote it—nearly four weeks ago!

    Raising the broader issue of felony disenfranchisement is right on: it was actually in the course of researching that issue that I discovered Peter Wagner’s work in the Prison Policy Initiative (see my link on the phrase “for about a year and half”).

    Here is some interesting historical background, to compliment the Virginia example, mentioned by Spencer Overton, at the link you provided.

    Mississippi’s 1890 constitutional convention was among the first to use felon disenfranchisement laws against African Americans. Until then, Mississippi law disenfranchised those guilty of any crime. In 1890, however, the law was narrowed to exclude only those convicted of certain offenses – crimes of which African Americans were more often convicted than whites. The Mississippi Supreme Court in 1896 enumerated these crimes, confirming that the new constitution targeted those “convicted of bribery, burglary, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretenses, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamy.”

    Other states followed suit. Many newly disenfranchisable offenses, such as bigamy and vagrancy, were common among African Americans simply because of the dislocations of slavery and Reconstruction. Indeed, the laws were carefully designed by white men who understood how to apply criminal law in a discriminatory way: the Alabama judge who wrote that state’s new disenfranchisement language had decades of experience in a predominantly African-American district, and estimated that certain misdemeanor charges could be used to disqualify two-thirds of black voters.

    “What is it we want to do?” asked John B. Knox, president of the Alabama convention of 1901. “Why, it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State.”

    The laws worked. A historian later hired by Alabama state registrars found that by January 1903, the revised constitution “had disfranchised approximately ten times as many blacks as whites,” many for non-prison offenses.

    (Alec Ewald, “Punishing at the Polls: The Case Against Disenfranchising Citizens With Felony Convictions,” emphasis added.)

    As seems to frequently be the case, Mississippi set the example for everyone else on how to maintain segregation and discrimination. As is also the case, these innovations were not limited to the South. Ewald also notes that New York state adopted felony disenfranchisement laws in 1821 in order to exclude Blacks from the political process.

  • lineage adena November 19, 2008, 7:45 am

    Jonathan, as seems to frequently be the case, Mississippi set the example for everyone else on how to maintain segregation and discrimination.

  • lineage adena November 19, 2008, 8:53 am

    Man! This stuff about your Father and Frankie Newton is so moving and beautiful! I've just been listening to the Jasmine set, and it inspired me to Google in the hopes of finding more about Frankie's activist side. Bless the Internet! My Mother, Corrine, died a year and a half ago. She was an activist in many domains – especially Feminism. She was at NYU, class of '49, and her friend Millie Schoenbaum dated Frankie she told me once, in passing (!!!). I asked to ask Millie more about it, but she never did…Any more you can tell me would be greatly appreciated.

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