Census counting of prisoners becomes partisan battleground
MADISON, Wisconsin (AP):
When the US Census Bureau counts residents of Milwaukee’s poorest neighbourhoods next year, a significant portion of their population will be missing: prisoners.
For these predominantly black areas, with incarceration rates among the highest in the nation, the government’s longstanding policy to count inmates as residents of the prison where they are held diminishes their political power back home.
“When you undercount people for the census, they end up losing in that community dollars that could go toward services that can help remediate poverty,” said state Rep David Bowen, a Milwaukee Democrat co-sponsoring legislation to end what critics call prison gerrymandering.
Democrats argue that the system shifts resources from traditionally liberal urban centres – home to many inmates who are disproportionately black and Hispanic – to rural, white, Republican-leaning areas where prisons are usually located.
“It’s really artificially shifting money ... based on something that isn’t reality,” said US Rep Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who is co-sponsoring legislation in Congress to change the census policy.
Republicans, however, argue that towns with prisons need federal money for the additional costs they bring, such as medical care, law enforcement, and road maintenance.
“There are a lot of costs. It’s not all peaches and cream having a prison in your community,” said Arizona state Rep T.J. Shope, a Republican who represents the town of Florence, where prisoners represent about two-thirds of the population of 30,000.
Although the Census Bureau has counted inmates as prison residents since 1850, states control redistricting and can move those populations to their home counties for that purpose or not include inmates at all when maps are drawn. Some states controlled by Democrats are passing laws to prohibit using prison populations to draw legislative maps. Washington and Nevada this year became the fifth and sixth states to pass laws since 2010 banning using prisoners for redistricting, joining New York, Maryland, California, and Delaware.
Nine other states, including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, have similar proposals pending. Connecticut, which has the fifth-highest incarceration rate for black men, argues in a federal lawsuit that using prisoners for redistricting purposes – and putting them in districts where they didn’t live before incarceration – violates the one-person, one-vote requirement of the 14th Amendment. A federal appeals court in September allowed the lawsuit to proceed.
The Census Bureau’s policy pertaining to prisoners didn’t get much attention until recent decades because the population wasn’t large enough to alter representation, but now, the US imprisons more people than any other nation.
The way inmates are counted impacts the distribution of dollars and heightens political jostling over representation in legislative districts and local offices – even though prisoners can’t even vote in most states.
“The rural counties benefit tremendously off of the back of individuals who are incarcerated in those regions,” said Jerome Dillard, the state director of Ex-incarcerated People Organizing, a Milwaukee-based advocacy group that, among other things, wants to restore voting rights to former prisoners.