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Census prison count boosts political clout of rural areas

By Kirsten Searer searer@lasvegassun.com
December 16, 2004
Las Vegas Sun

The U.S. Census shifts political power from Nevada's urban counties to its rural counties because of the way it counts the state's prison population, according to a new study.

Most of Nevada's 10,403 state prisoners come from Washoe or Clark counties, but most prisons are located in rural stretches.

About 21 percent of residents in Pershing County, for example, are in prison, said the study by the Prison Policy Initiative.

The prison population gives a boost to legislative districts such as 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 the 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."

Yet Peter Wagner, an assistant director with the Prison Policy Initiative and Soros Justice Fellow who researched the report, said prisoners have little vested in their prison community, and representatives in the area don't necessarily worry about their needs.

"Prisoners are just passing through," he said.

Since urban minorities are disproportionately put in prison, they lose more of their political power to rural districts, Wagner said.

The study points out that 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, like children who are too young to vote, still are counted as constituents when legislators restructure districts.

The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, which supported the study, hopes legislators will ask the U.S. Census to figure out where prisoners come from and count them as living in their home counties.

"We are getting less political representation than we are entitled to," said Paul Brown, Southern Nevada director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. "It gives a false sense of how many people are in the rural areas."

In October, for example, 67 percent of state inmates going into the prison system were from Clark County, and 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.

About 8 or 9 percent of prisoners in Nevada are foreign nationals, many of them people with immigration problems who might not return to American society after they are released, he said. And he wondered which counties would claim prisoners who are serving life sentences or are sentenced to death.

"You just don't know," he said. "You can't base it on where they're expected to go or where they came from."

Wagner, however, points to the Nevada Constitution, which writes that "For the purpose of voting, no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence solely by reason of his presence of absence... while confined in any public prison."

He also believes the 14th Amendment would uphold the rights of counties to claim prisoners as their own residents because it gives voters in rural counties more power than voters in urban counties.

Other states, such as Kansas, Texas and Illinois, have looked at ways to modify Census data to reflect difficult-to-peg populations such as prisoners, college students and people in the military, Wagner said.

Richard Siegel, president of the ACLU of Nevada's board and a retiring political science professor at the University of Nevada-Reno, said reforming the way prisoners are counted could be another blow to rural counties that have been losing their population edge -- and their political clout -- for decades.

Already, more than 70 percent of the state's population is in Clark County, he said.

While Siegel said the idea of counting prisoners differently should be considered seriously, "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.

"It would be a matter of political power."

Copyright 2004 Las Vegas Sun.

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