The (Un)Usual Residence Rule
The Census Bureau's unfortunate practice of counting prisoners as residents of the counties in which they are incarcerated (see my previous entry titled "The Census Bureau Must Sharpen Its Senses"), and its "too-much-of-a-hassle-to-change-our-practice" explanation to Congress recently, has undemocratic effects not just in New York, but nationwide. Fortunately, they are others reporting on this issue as well. Mark Bennet, a reporter for TribStar.com, wrote an article recently on the effects of the Bureau's outdated practice on his state of Indiana (I was led to the piece by Peter Wagner, founder of the Prison Policy Initiative and author of an impressive in-depth report on the issue).
For instance, Bennett looked at Vigo County, population 102,592, which as of 2005 had experienced a 3% drop in its population since 2000. If the Census Bureau were to count the 2,920 inmates being held at the Federal Correctional Complex (located in Vigo County) as residents of the myriad places around the country they actually come from, Vigo County would experience an additional 3% population decline, possibly causing it to lose a legislator along with federal and state grants.
According to Bennett, under the Census Bureau's current calculations, 96% of the black "residents" of Indiana's Sullivan County are incarcerated (891 out of 928)! If the inmates at Sullivan County's Wabash Valley Correctional Facility were considered residents of their real homes, Sullivan County would lose almost 10% of its population.
Just like in New York, where the vast majority of state prisoners are from urban centers (particularly New York City), but where almost all correctional facilities are located upstate (thereby diluting the five boroughs of population, political strength, and government grants while transferring the same to much smaller places up north), Bennett notes the same alarming phenomenon in Illinois. In the Prairie State, for example, though 60% of its prisoners call Cook County (which encompasses Chicago) home, 99% of the prisons are located outside Cook County. According to Peter Wagner, 34% of prisoners in California are from Los Angeles County, but only 3% of the state's prisoners are incarcerated there. Head to the city of brotherly love, one finds that 40% of Pennsylvania's inmates are from Philadelphia, but none are imprisoned in Philadelphia County.
The debate should not end --- but rather intensify --- with the Census Bureau's predictable bureaucratic shrug-of-the-shoulders response to Congress's inquiry into possibly changing the application of the "usual residence" rule as applied to inmates. Local, state, and federal representatives need to hear from their constituents that this corrosive practice polluting our democracy must be cleaned up (of course, a percentage of the "constituents" most invested in such reform --- those behind bars unable to vote --- are unable to get "their" representatives' attention). Otherwise, we might be waiting until 2020, if not beyond, to correct this deleterious defect of our democracy.