Why the Census Bureau can and must start collecting the home addresses of incarcerated people

Submitted by Peter Wagner, Eric Lotke and Andrew Beveridge
to the U.S. Census Bureau on February 10, 2006
in advance of the Bureau's report to the Appropriations Committee on using prisoners' homes of record in the Census

Executive Summary

Traditionally, the Census Bureau has enumerated incarcerated people as residents of the Census block that contains the prison in which they are incarcerated. Yet new uses of Census data and changing demographics require the periodic examination of the residence rules used to determine where people are counted. The application of the "usual residence" rule to people in prison is a subject that requires reexamination. The goal is to fulfill the Census Bureau's traditional goal of enumerating people correctly and in the correct place.

As American society has grown more complex, so too have the residence rules used to determine where to count the population. Over the last two decades, the percentage of Americans incarcerated in correctional facilities has increased four-fold. More than two million people, or 0.7% of the U.S. population, are incarcerated on any given day. In demographic groups such as young African American men, more than 12% are incarcerated.

Because correctional facilities are frequently located in areas far from the communities to which most incarcerated people belong, this outdated method of counting the population results in an artificial migration of these individuals.

This distortion of the data causes the most trouble in the context of political apportionment and the drawing of legislative district boundaries. Since the first Supreme Court case in the 1960s declaring the "One Person One Vote" principle that each legislative district must contain the same population as every other district, legislators have needed accurate block level data about where the population actually resides. The outdated Census interpretation of "usual residence" combines with the changes incarceration patterns to create an unanticipated and severe problem for our democracy.

The solution is to count people in prison where they live, not where they are temporarily confined. This report describes the problem and proposes solutions to the modest logistical difficulties of changing the method of enumeration.

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