Counting Inmates – A Census Controversy

Tomorrow’s Washington Post has an article by Zachary A. Goldfarb: Census Bureau, Activists Debate How and Where to Count Inmates.
This has become a pretty important issue, since the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population. While prisoners do not have a vote, their numbers add to the local population in terms of determining legislative districting and government spending. It has reached the point where there are some fairly perverse incentives.

“For people in prison, their bodies count but their voices don’t,” said Kirsten Levingston, director of the criminal justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Their presence in the tabulation column expands the influence of those who have an incentive to keep them in prison, not those who need the resources to help keep them out.” [or help them rejoin the work force after their release]

Specific example:

In New York state, activists find what they consider the most glaring example of the distortions created by the census policy. More than 40,000 convicts from New York City, in the southern part of the state, are housed in prisons upstate. Seven state Senate districts would not qualify as districts without their prison population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, an activist group. More worrisome, the group says, is that two politicians from those areas, Republican state Sens. Dale Volker and Michael Nozzolio, lead the committees on the legal code and crime and have been enthusiastic backers of long-standing, controversial laws that require long prison sentences for drug crimes.

There were a couple of statements in the article I found additionally disturbing.

The U.S. prison population has been rising steadily for decades, a result of the sharp increase in urban poverty, the influx of addictive drugs and stiffer penalties for crime. [emphasis added]

It’s really pretty disingenuous to attribute increased prison population on “the influx of addictive drugs.” First, the drugs have always been around, and in general, people are not getting arrested because they’re addicted. The increase is due to prohibition and the influx of an epidemic of drug laws. If Goldfarb doesn’t understand the rise of prison population, he shouldn’t just attempt to make it up out of thin air for his article.
I also take exception to the quote by Representative Serrano:

“If there are 10,000 people in prison on drug issues and you count them back home, that could help bring more money to fight the drug war,” said U.S. Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a Democrat who represents the Bronx, a high-crime borough of New York City.

To fight the drug war? We’ve had plenty of fighting in the drug war — now what we need is some intelligence (and I don’t mean spying — I mean less-stupid politicians). We need to get smart on crime and drugs, not tough.
The census issue is going to get interesting. Personally, I’d like to see prisoners counted where they called home, if for no other reason than it would reduce the incentive for communities to build more prisons, and force the criminal justice system in this country to make some hard choices.

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