Census reform advocates are celebrating a victory in the fight to get an accurate population count -- by getting an agreement not to count prisoners at all.
How is it possible that this is a step forward?
It's far from ideal, but because prisoners are usually housed in rural districts far from their homes, by not counting them, the deal that reform advocates have struck with the Census Bureau will actually make it possible for states to draw more accurate legislative districts. For too long, prison-based gerrymandering has improperly concentrated power and funds in rural districts with big prisons. And even if states wanted to address the problem, they didn't have the data.
In past years, by the time the Census Bureau had shared data on prisoners, states had already redrawn their districts based on population counts. This week, that changed, when Missouri Rep. William Lacy Clay, Jr. -- who chairs the House subcommittee overseeing the census -- reached an agreement with Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves to share this critical 2010 Census data with states by May 2011.
The next step is to convince state governments to use the count properly and adjust for prisoners. You’ll be hearing more from us at Change.org about this. Legislation to make such adjustments is pending in New York, Maryland, Illinois, Florida and Wisconsin.
The New York Times supported the policy shift in an editorial this morning:
We hope this new data, which will be released in the spring of 2011, will bolster the efforts of reformers who are trying to end prison-based gerrymandering -- the cynical practice of drawing legislative districts with populations inflated by inmates who do not have the right to vote and whose actual residences are often far away.
“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," says Brenda Wright, Director of the Democracy Program at Demos. "The Census Bureau’s new data will greatly assist states and localities in correcting this injustice and drawing fair and accurate districts that honor the principle of one person, one vote.”
The fact that this compromise is a significant step for prisoners in the census, though, shows how much work remains to do. It's critical for public policy that we count prisoners in their home cities and neighborhoods. Urban, poor districts already suffer enough in the census, and losing prisoners from their count only exacerbates that injustice.
Photo Credit: MGShelton