Census Quandary: Where Do Prisoners 'Live'?
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
As the 2010 Census gets under way, politicians in some states are debating where prisoners should be counted: in the prisons where they are serving time, or in their home communities. The debate pits rural areas against urban ones — and Republicans against Democrats — as communities fight over the political and monetary resources at stake.
National Public Radio highlighted the question in a piece that aired Monday (Feb. 15):
"Ten years ago, the last time there was a census," NPR reported, "45,000 mostly black and Latino prisoners from New York City were locked up in the farm country of upstate New York. As inmates, they couldn't vote. But they were counted as residents of those rural political districts anyway."
The debate comes down to the greater political representation and taxpayer money given to areas with larger populations, as determined by the once-a-decade Census.
Critics of New York's system say it shortchanges poor communities where prisoners often come from and abuses the notion of "one person, one vote," because prisoners are being used to further the interests of another community. At a recent briefing at New York's City Hall, the Rev. Al Sharpton called it "the voters' rights and civil rights issue of the year in the state of New York."
Supporters of the system say communities where prisons are based should be rewarded with more resources because of the inherent dangers of hosting a correctional facility where dangerous people reside. Others note that prisoners — no matter where they are from- still use local water, sewer systems and other infrastructure, and those costs must be paid somehow.
New York and at least four other states (Florida, Illinois, Maryland and Wisconsin) are considering legislation that would count prisoners at their last-known addresses, The New York Times reported last week. That is a change, The Times said, that "would likely favor larger and mostly Democratic cities."
A recent move by the Census Bureau, meanwhile, seems likely to expand the debate to many more states after November's elections, The Times reported.
In May 2011, in time for Congressional and legislative reapportionment, the bureau will identify exactly where group quarters like prisons are and how many people occupy them," The Times said. "States would then have the option of counting them in the local population or not."