By Aaron Powell Jr.
Dayton Daily News, July 7, 2004
A new study of how the U.S. Census Bureau counts prisoners said Ohio's urban areas are being undercounted because the census records prisoners where they are incarcerated, and not their county of origin.
This reduces the population of the urban communities, where many prisoners are from, and swells the population of the rural communities that house prisons, according to the study, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Ohio, released Tuesday.
The study was released by PrisonersoftheCensus.org, an organization that believes the practice shifts political power away from poor and minority communities.
The study's authors, Peter Wagner and Rose Heyer, said the practice of counting prisoners where they are incarcerated can lead to problems with legislative redistricting and misleading depictions about whether counties are growing or declining.
They said, for instance, Marion County's growth of 1,943 people is because of prison expansion. The county's actual population decreased by 144 people, the report said.
"Cuyahoga County sends the most people away to prison in both absolute and relative terms," Heyer said. "As of April 2000, 25 percent of Ohio's prison population (more than 11,000 people) had been committed from Cuyahoga County. The county lost over 10,000 of these people to prisons in other counties."
Heyer said 5 percent of the state's prison population comes from Montgomery County. In 2000, there were 2,241 state prisoners from Montgomery County. The county housed 724 prisoners, creating a population deficit of 1,517 people.
According to the report, all of Ohio's major cities lost population because of the way prisoners are counted.
Wagner and Heyer said this way of counting also is critical to Ohio's black population, which makes up a disproportionate share of the state's prison population.
"Many counties have sizable black populations that in fact exist only in the prison," Wagner said.
Wagner, 32, is from Northampton, Mass., and graduated from the Western New England College School of Law in Springfield, Mass.
"This project began as an independent study in law school in October 2000," he said.
He said ideally the Census Bureau will change how it counts prisoners. He and Heyer said that until the Census Bureau updates its methods, individual states should follow the lead of Kansas, which conducts a special census to correct how prisoners are counted. "I'm optimistic that enough people will become interested in the issue and the Census Bureau will come out with a fix before 2010.