by Sam Roberts
The New York Times,
September 15, 2006
A national panel of experts recommended yesterday that in 2010 the Census Bureau study whether prison inmates should be counted as residents of the urban neighborhoods where they last lived rather than as residents of the rural districts where they are incarcerated.
In New York, advocates for prisoners and for voting rights have argued that the current system dilutes the political power of the downstate region, which is dominated by Democrats.
"The evidence of political inequities in redistricting that can arise due to the counting of prisoners at the prison location is compelling," the panel said.
"Including thousands of people in legislative districts even though they are legally prohibited from voting can create distortions in representation," as well as competing claims for state and federal funds, the report concluded.
The report for the National Research Council was commissioned by the Census Bureau, which has resisted the change as too costly and complicated. The bureau declined to comment on the report's recommendations.
The panel rejected calls for an immediate change in the way inmates are counted, explaining that its focus is broader and proposing that all those responding to the census be asked whether they have some other residence.
The panel called for "a major experiment as part of the 2010 census," in which the bureau should "evaluate the feasibility and cost of assigning incarcerated and institutionalized individuals, who have another address, to the other location."
Counting prisoners where they sleep "is consistent with current Census Bureau practice," the panel said, adding, "We do not rule out a principle being added to our suggested listing to count prisoners at a location other than a prison; however, the information necessary for such a decision does not now exist."
Critics of the current system hailed the report by the council, which studies scientific and technological issues as part of the National Academies.
"They ignored the Census Bureau's position that it isn't feasible and that it costs too much," said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy group based in Massachusetts. "That's a huge rebuke."
The panel proposed that the bureau study how much information could be collected from prisoners themselves and how much was available from institutions on the inmate's previous address. It also urged the Census Bureau to study the impact of other potential criteria on an individual, like how much time has already been served and how long a time remains until a prisoner's scheduled release.
"That needs to be explored for all group quarters," said Daniel L. Cork, the panel's study director, who edited the report with Professor Paul R. Voss of the University of Wisconsin.
States typically use the census conducted every 10 years to reapportion legislative and Congressional districts. The impact of counting inmates where they are incarcerated is magnified in New York, where most inmates come from downstate and are held in prisons upstate.
Voting rights advocates estimate that without the inmates, as many as seven Senate districts upstate -- where most seats are held by Republicans, who have controlled the State Senate for decades -- might have to be redrawn, with downstate picking up some seats.
The panel concluded that the criteria applied in the 2000 census to identify a person's usual residence were generally too complicated and did not take account of variables, including snowbirds who go south for the winter, and prison inmates.