December 16, 2004
LAS VEGAS - The U.S. Census shifts political power from Nevada's urban counties to rural areas because of the way it counts the state's prison population, according to a new study.
Most of Nevada's 10,403 prisoners come from Washoe or Clark counties, but most of Nevada's eight men's and women's prisons are in rural areas.
However, Peter Wagner, assistant director with the Prison Policy Initiative of Northampton, Mass., said prisoners have little vested in their prison community, and elected representatives may not worry about their needs.
"Prisoners are just passing through," said Wagner, who researched the report, "Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Nevada."
In Pershing County, about 21 percent of residents are in prison. That boosts Assembly District 35, which includes part of Pershing County and where 5.5 percent of the district's 47,906 residents were in prison when legislators redistricted in 2001.
Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, who represents the district, said prisoners are like residents.
"They become residents once they're incarcerated," he said. "They're not free to come and go, especially if you take the maximum security population. For the most part, they will be there for a long, long time."
The Prison Policy Initiative study noted the black population in Pershing County more than doubled in the 1990s, but about 95 percent of blacks in the county are in prison.
W. Dean Ishman, president of the Las Vegas branch of the NAACP, said the method of counting prisoners "diminishes the political clout of our cities and in particular the black neighborhoods of our cities."
While prisoners are not eligible to vote, they still are counted as constituents when legislators redraw districts.
"We are getting less political representation than we are entitled to," said Paul Brown, southern Nevada director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, which co-sponsored the study. "It gives a false sense of how many people are in the rural areas."
In October, 67 percent of state inmates going into the prison system were from Clark County, home to 70 percent of the state's population. Another 20 percent were from Washoe County, said Fritz Schlottman, spokesman for the Department of Corrections.
But it's difficult to track which county a prisoner would list as his or her "home" county, Schlottman said.
"You just don't know," he said. "You can't base it on where they're expected to go or where they came from."
Richard Siegel, president of the ACLU of Nevada's board, said reforming the way prisoners are counted could hurt rural counties that have for decades lost a population edge and political clout.
"It probably will be an issue that the rurals will be fighting to protect their position, and Clark (County) would want to see the change," Siegel said. "It would be a matter of political power."
Copyright 2004 Associated Press.