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Report: Prisoner census causes cities to lose political clout to rural areas

Greg Wright, Wednesday, July 7, 2004
Gannett News Service

Winners, losers

Ohio counties that gained the most population in Census 2000 because of the method of counting prison populations:

  • Pickaway: 5,583.
  • Ross: 4,343.
  • Richland: 4,023.
  • Madison: 3,961.
  • Marion: 3,785.

Ohio counties that lost the most people because of the method of counting prison populations:

  • Cuyahoga: -10,441.
  • Hamilton: -5,235.
  • Franklin: -4,076.
  • Summit: -2,905.
  • Lucas: -1,796.

Source: Prison Policy Initiative, www.prisonpolicy.org

WASHINGTON -- Ohio's big cities have lost political clout to rural areas such as Pickaway, Richland and Ross counties because of the way the census counts state prison population, a report released Tuesday said.

A vote cast in Chillicothe or Marion might have more power than one cast in Cincinnati or Cleveland, according the Prison Policy Initiative report.

"It's a great change in political representation," said Peter Wagner, a spokesman for the Prison Policy Initiative.

The Census Bureau includes all inmates in the population of an area where a prison is located. But this counting method skews state political power, the report said.

In Ohio, legislative boundaries are drawn so each district has an equal population, a practice called "one man one vote." But voters in districts with a prison end up with more than one man, one vote because inmates cannot cast a ballot, the report said."This inflates the population of rural prison hosting areas, and shortchanges the urban areas most prisoners come from," said Rose Heyer, who wrote the report with Wagner.

A disproportionate share of inmates is from minority groups.

Ohio had the fourth highest prison construction rate in the nation between 1979 and 2000, and many of these new penitentiaries were built in the countryside.

Ohio's prison population also more than doubled to 46,000 inmates between 1983 and 2003.

Lawmakers including Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., said the census should count prison inmates in communities where they come from instead of where they are incarcerated.

Such a move would divert more voting power -- and the federal dollars that come with it -- to blighted city neighborhoods, Conyers said.

Census officials were not immediately available to comment on whether they would change the counting method for the 2010 census. However, a black advisory committee to the census urged the department to make the change, Wagner said.

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