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One-sided Prison Census Review Sparks Backlash

by Brendan Coyne

Feb. 27, 2006 – A Census Bureau study into the feasibility of counting federal prisoners as residents of their home states rather than the in the state where they are jailed is causing consternation.

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Released last Wednesday, the study found that the expenses, reliability and timeliness of collecting information about where prisoners lived prior to incarceration presents significant barriers to changing the 226-year-old practice of using the state in which their prison sits.

Proponents of changing the way the Census counts prisoners maintain that the boom in prison building and ever-rising prison population have a dramatic affect on the voting rights of urban communities – especially communities of color – with disproportionate incarceration rates. Because the majority of inmates come from urban areas but are warehoused in rural ones, the latter win political clout and appropriations under the current Census counting regimen.

One census plan studied by the Bureau involves interviewing every federal inmate and would cost upwards of $250 million, the Bureau study said. An alternative method, assessing already existing prison data, is unfeasible, according to the study, because administrative records "are incomplete, inconsistent and not updated." Ultimately, the researchers concluded that any change mandated by Congress would involve significant upheaval of current Bureau practices.

The findings were quickly criticized by prisoners’ rights groups. The Brennan Center for Justice, a New York University School of Law-sponsored institution that addresses public policy on poverty and criminal justice issues, said the assumptions made by the study show a willingness to ignore the more than 2 million people now jailed, in the interest of expediency.

"The report shows either short shrift in a work product, or a shocking lack of creativity and vision," Center Director Michael Waldman said. "The Census Bureau capably solves complicated data collection problems every day, yet throws in the towel before even entering the ring on the accurate counting of millions of people."

Just a week prior to the Census report, the Brennan Center released its own feasibility study finding similar problems with administrative record-keeping by prison officials but ultimately reaching a different conclusion.

"At nearly [one] percent of the nation’s population, the number of people incarcerated is clearly significant enough to merit reexamination and ultimately to properly count," the Brennan Center report said. The number of prisoners "is not large enough to excessively burden the Census Bureau, particularly where the population at hand is literally a captive one," the paper concluded, noting: "People in prison, unlike other hard-to-count populations, are quite easy to locate."

The Brennan Center report recommended that the Bureau distribute forms to prisoners and follow up with interviews when necessary. In addition, the Brennan Center called on Congress to give the Bureau more time to fully explore the issue.

In a ground-breaking 2002 study of New York State’s prison system, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) documented how prison operators and politically savvy public figures have worked to shift power away from minority urban areas to the less-populated, mostly white upstate region. PPI contends that the same is true on a national scale.

"In short, current Census practices allow white rural prison communities to appropriate urban minority residents for the purpose of representation," PPI said. "This runs counter to any idea of equal protection under the law, and harkens back to the repugnant three-fifth's clause that gave the South extra representation for their slaves."

Last year, lawmakers led by US Congressman José Serrano representing Bronx, NY forced the issue by attaching a rider demanding that the Census assess changing its prisoner-counting methods to an appropriations bill. Thursday, Serrano charged: "Instead of providing an overview of how they could make this change in methodology work, the Census Bureau only makes excuses for why they don’t believe it should be done."

"The report focuses heavily on the increased cost as a prohibitive factor," Serrano added. "However, the report only examined one option for implementing this alternative counting process, and did not analyze several lower cost possibilities. It is also hard to believe that it would cost close to double the amount per person to count inmates as it does to count regular citizens."

In conducting the study, the Census Bureau never consulted people outside of the prison system. Instead, it sought information and analysis from government entities fully vested in the business of incarceration, including the Justice Department, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Federal Bureau of Prisons and state corrections programs.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Report originally appeared in the February 27, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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