Census Bureau Prison Miscounts Burden Local Governments

We generally focus on how the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison, rather than of their home addresses, causes problems for electoral redistricting. But while prison-based gerrymandering may be the biggest problem caused by the Census Bureau’s prison miscount, it certainly isn’t the only one.

More and more examples keep popping up across the country, all with a common thread: incarcerated people are not part of the communities in which they are confined, and relying on data that assumes otherwise creates unforeseen problems.

A common response is to chase the symptom and change a state law or municipal code every time a community with a prison is faced with an absurd result. In my view, the ideal solution is for the Census Bureau to respond to shifting social data needs by counting incarcerated people at home. In the meantime, though, I thought it might be useful to gather together in one place some of the examples I’ve found of non-redistricting problems with the Census Bureau’s prison count:“Counting inmates in the town’s population is a grave mistake and poses undue hardship for the residents of our community”

  1. Raising costs for building inspector administration and public safety assessments: In 2010 the Maine State Prison was relocated to the town of Warren, Maine, raising the town’s official 2010 Census Bureau population by more than 900 people and pushing it over the 4,000 mark that mandates the enforcement of the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code and increases the town’s dispatch fees. As the Warren Code Enforcer Bill O’Donnell pointed out, “Counting inmates in the town’s population is a grave mistake and poses undue hardship for the residents of our community.” In response, state Representative Wes Richardson introduced legislation to exclude the incarcerated population from the town’s official count. The bill, LD 1697, passed the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee unanimously on February 9.
  2. Creating expensive voting precincts for people who are not permitted to vote: Massachusetts state law prohibits any single voting precinct in the state from exceeding a maximum size. While this good way to ensure that all citizens can access the polls on election day, towns with large prisons suddenly found themselves in a difficult position when figuring out how many precincts to draw because their official populations are inflated by incarcerated populations that are prohibited from voting. In order to avoid having to create, staff, and pay for a voting precinct for people who can’t vote, four towns with large prisons (Harvard,LancasterMiddleton, and Shirley) have each needed special legislation to exempt themselves from the requirement.
  3. Being forced to adopt expensive recycling systems without having sufficient recycleables: The 3,717 residents of Kelly, Pennsylvania ran into a quandary when the 2010 Census included a large Federal prison in the township’s official population count, reporting 5,500 people in Kelly. This suddenly made the township responsible for enforcing a 1988 Pennsylvania statute that mandates curbside recycling for areas with large or dense populations. Not only would the unnecessary curbside program be costly for Kelly, but the township wouldn’t even be allowed to take over the prison’s federally-run recycling system if it wanted to.

  4. Shouldering extra financial responsibility for regional health agencies: The member communities of several Michigan regional health districts use population-based calculations to determine their financial responsibility to the agency, which become skewed when large prison populations are added to the mix. As Luce, Mackinac, Alger, Schoolcraft (LMAS) District Health Department Health Officer Nick Derusha pointed out, “the department doesn’t provide our full range of services to those prisoners.” To solve this problem, the LMAS member counties split the prison populations located within two of the counties equally between all four. Branch County, on the other hand, recently decided to refuse to pay extra for the incarcerated populations within its boundaries the next time the county calculates its financial responsibility to the Branch Hillsdale St. Joseph Community Health Agency.
  5. Becoming a “city” instead of a “village” and having to provide additional services: In 1999 the village of Grafton, Ohio successfully convinced the Ohio Legislature to exclude nearly 3,700 incarcerated people from its official population totals. Adding the incarcerated population to the 2,312 real residents would have pushed the village past the 5,000 population mark, at which point Ohio law would have deemed Grafton a city and required it to offer additional community services that are unnecessary for smaller populations. Fortunately, Ohio addressed this problem by passing HB 189, which requires that prison populations be excluded from the population of a municipal body for the purposes of determining whether it is a village or a city.

In the abstract, it is entirely rational to use population data to determine whether a community should be required to offer a certain kind of service to its citizens, and it can make sense to use population to determine how much a town should contribute to some kind of regional initiative. Bigger communities need more sophisticated building inspectors, more people mean more recycling, and it’s fair for counties to chip in for health services based on how many people might need care.

But when the data that everyone is relying on has a major flaw, these assumptions break. Incarcerated people are confined in self-contained facilities within communities that they are not allowed to be part of, and which they will leave at the earliest possible opportunity. The above examples all show the absurdity of including incarcerated people in calculations about public resources that they are prohibited from using. Rather than forcing counties and municipalities that house prisons to grapple individually with the distortions caused by flawed population data, it is far more logical for the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people at home in the first place.

Leah Sakala
 Prisoners of the Census

Published by the LA Progressive on February 17, 2012
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About Leah Sakala

Leah Sakala is a Policy Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. She co-authored Reaching too far, coming up short: How large sentencing enhancement zones miss the mark and she is the editor of our research database. One of her specialties at the Prison Policy Initiative is branding and messaging. She coined the slogan for the campaign against prison-based gerrymandering "No Representation Without Population." Her work can be found on car bumpers and on the title of a law passed in Maryland. She graduated from Smith College in May 2011, and her thesis Doing Time is Money: The Economic Crisis, Criminal Justice Ideology, and Sentencing Reform in Michigan won the prize for best thesis in American Studies and American History.

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