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April 15, 2010

NY Times editorial calls for sensible prisoner census counting

This morning's New York Times has this editorial headlined "A Fairer Way to Count," which focuses on how prisoners get counted.  Here are excerpts:

Maryland struck a blow for electoral fairness this week with a new law requiring that prison inmates be counted at their home addresses when legislative districts are redrawn after the 2010 census.  Other states should follow.

Counting inmates as residents — prison-based gerrymandering — inflates populations and exaggerates the power of the mainly rural districts where prisons tend to get built.  It undercuts the power of the mainly urban districts where the inmates come from, their families live, and to which they return after release....

Lawmakers in Maryland acted after learning how the prison count had distorted their political landscape.  In one state legislative district, nearly a fifth of the population are inmates, most of whom hail from elsewhere in the state.  In one county commission district, inmates account for 64 percent of the population.

Studies have shown that many states have districts that would probably be illegal had they not been padded with inmates who often come from hundreds of miles away.  More than a half dozen states seem poised to follow Maryland’s example.  That is an important start.  The best solution is for the Census Bureau to begin counting inmates at their homes beginning with the 2020 census.

April 15, 2010 at 08:29 AM | Permalink


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Now let's see. The idea of the census is to count people where they are at the time the census is taken. That's the historical practice, for 200 years or so. So far, so good.

But wait! A Democratic governor and Democratic legislature have determined that incarcerated criminals shoud be counted, not where they are, but where they MIGHT BE (or might not be) months or years from now.

Maybe we should call this, "No Enumeration Without Speculation."

And why should they be counted other than where they are? Because they'll get moved (on paper) TO DEMOCRATIC STRONGHOLDS, thus increasing the electoral clout thereof!!! Boss Tweed, why didn't you think of this?

Weren't we supposed to be getting "hope and change"? This sure sounds like old-style, crass politics. But nothing like that would go on in Maryland.

Would it?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 15, 2010 10:22:08 AM

Here's the other side of that coin: The census is used for all sorts of purposes that involve allocating resources and funding to different geographic areas based on the size of the population that will use those resources. Given that prisons are more or less self-sufficient operations that gather their resources from outside the local area (i.e., state-wide funding), it is hard to see why counting prisoners as residents of the area where they are incarcerated makes sense as anything but a political boondoggle for the local area -- essentially an accounting dodge that allows the area to claim an outsized portion of the public weal.

Incidentally, the usual legal definition of residency states that once you establish residency in X location, you do not shed it until you establish residency in another (Y) location. And establishing another residency usually involves an intentional act (i.e., the intent to stay in the new place permanently or at least indefinitely). I'm not sure how this maps onto prisoners, who do not voluntarily move to another part of the state, and who presumably in most cases intend to return to their home area after release. Certainly the law could presume intent as a legal fiction based on the fact that the prisoner, essentially, forfeited to the state of the right to make the choice about his domicile. But it still doesn't fit into the traditional conception. Maybe it is different for lifers (whom the state intends to domicile in Y locality permanently) than term-of-years prisoners (for whom even the state intends a return to X locality at a more-or-less definite time)?

Posted by: nc atty | Apr 15, 2010 11:58:14 AM

i have to agree bill. this is the right decision. Since dont' most state's LEGALLY require the inmates to be RETUNRED to the county where they comitted their crime which in MOST cases is ALSO THEIR LEGAL RESIDENCE. Since kind of stupid if not criminal to use them to inflate locations other than that residence with them.

A prison is hardly a residence especially for those NOT sentenced to life.

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 15, 2010 12:28:15 PM

I might agree with Bill if states allowed inmates to vote (as a couple states do). But it seems awfully unfair for rural areas to boost their political power by counting inmates while denying those same inmates the vote.

Posted by: dm | Apr 15, 2010 4:34:11 PM

dm --

Felon franchisement, or disenfranchisement, is uniform throughout the state and does not vary from urban districts to rural districts.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 15, 2010 7:48:29 PM

>The idea of the census is to count people where they are at the time the census is taken.

Wrong. The point of the census is to determine how to apportion up the House of Representatives. Why should middle of nowhere counties increase their representation in the House just for holding people in cages who can't vote?

Prison-based gerrymandering is bullshit. It should be changed.

I agree that it's sad that the impetus for this change is probably a Democrat power grab. But the principle is sound.

Posted by: Praga | Apr 16, 2010 4:58:39 AM

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