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States get more leeway to count prisoners in census

By Hope Yen
Associated Press / February 12, 2010

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WASHINGTON - The US Census Bureau will release information about prisoners earlier to the states, a move that could affect redistricting and increase the clout of cities.

Prison populations have historically been included in national headcounts, but the change will allow states to decide how to count inmates for purposes of redistricting. Until now, the bureau provided breakdowns on group quarters, such as prisons, only after states had finished their redistricting. That resulted in districts with prisons, which are disproportionately built in rural areas, getting extra representation in their legislatures, despite laws in some states that say a prison cell is not a residence.

The jockeying is part of a decennial rite - counting the population. The federal government relies on the census not only to learn about Americans and their lives but also to parcel out federal dollars. As required by the Constitution, the census also is used to determine the number of US House seats representing each state.

In this week’s policy change on prisoner counts, census officials said they would release data on prison populations to states when they redraw legislative boundaries next year. This gives states more leeway in tallying their prisoners - a move that could reshape the political map.

Census director Robert Groves made the decision after weeks of discussion with Representative William Lacy Clay, Democrat of Missouri, and with public interest and minority groups. They called it an important first step toward shifting federal resources and representation back to urban communities, where they believe the aid is needed the most.

“For too long, communities with large prisons have received greater representation in government on the backs of people who have no voting rights in the prison community,’’ said Brenda Wright, director of the Democracy Program at Demos, a research and advocacy organization. “The Census Bureau’s new data will greatly assist states and localities in correcting this injustice.’’

The impact could be significant in states such as New York, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, California, Texas, and Maryland, where prisons are found in more sparsely populated areas. In New York, for instance, most of the 60,000 inmates live in prisons in rural upstate communities, even though half the inmate population committed crimes in New York City.