Friday, October 24, 2008

Prisoners, Population, and Political Power

The issue of inmate gerrymandering in terms of Census counting has been a sticking point in penology for years now. Do we count the 1.6 million prison inmates as residents of the district where their prison is located, or do we count them as residents of the cities or areas where they lived before incarceration?

Census Bureau's Counting of Prisoners Benefits Some Rural Districts:

Concerns about so-called prison-based gerrymandering have grown as the number of inmates around the nation has ballooned. Similar disparities have been identified in upstate New York, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

Critics say the census should count prisoners in the district where they lived before they were incarcerated.

In 2006, experts commissioned by the Census Bureau recommended that the agency study whether prison inmates should be counted in 2010 as residents of the mostly urban neighborhoods where they last lived rather than as residents of the mostly rural districts where they are temporarily housed against their will.

Any such change would probably require Congressional approval. It could benefit Democrats, since it would add population to the party’s urban strongholds and subtract from the Republican-dominated rural areas where most prisons are.

Prof. James A. Gardner of the University at Buffalo Law School, said that because “prisoners don’t want to be there, leave at the first opportunity, and there’s no chance they can vote, it is taking advantage of a completely inert population for the purpose of sneaking out extra political power.”
Of course, depending on your perspective, you could argue re-drawing these inmates into the districts where they lived before they were incarcerated is also "sneaking out extra political power" as well.

Nevertheless, it does not make much sense to count inmates as residents of these rural outposts where most prisons are located. As the one congressman quoted in the article said, they don't vote, so they are not really constituents of the district, and none will be staying in the district permanently after release.

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