Some cities want to claim inmates on census

Changing way prisoners counted could shift political power
2010-03-07T00:05:00Z Some cities want to claim inmates on censusBy Marisa Kwiatkowski -, (219) 662-5333

For years, Gary Mayor Rudy Clay shunned the Steel City's reputation for being a hotbed of crime.

But Clay recently said he'd like to count prison inmates -- who live in jails elsewhere but list Gary as their hometown -- as city residents for purposes of the 2010 census. He intends to ask state lawmakers about passing a bill that counts inmates at their address before incarceration.

Indiana's more than 31,600 state and federal prison inmates currently are counted in the census as residents of the towns where they are incarcerated, not where they reside. But some municipal leaders want to change that, seeking to boost their official population numbers.

Census population counts determine representation in the U.S. House and in allocating more than $400 billion in government funding, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Census figures also are used to draw maps of legislative districts.

"I've always thought that wherever a person is physically located, especially in our institutions, shouldn't matter," Clay, the mayor of the region's largest city, said. "It's in their hometowns that they should be counted."

Some civil rights advocates and municipal leaders argue the current way inmates are counted gives prison towns an unfair advantage. One lawmaker noted many inmates will be released in the 10 years leading up to the next census.

"It's obvious how it is bad for Gary, but it's less obvious how it's bad for everybody else," said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative. "Allowing a small number of districts with huge prisons extra representation dilutes the votes of everybody else."

Some legislators may be reluctant to change the way inmates are counted because it would alter their districts and bring in new constituents who may not know or re-elect them, said Adam Cox, a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School who specializes in redistricting issues.

Multiple Indiana legislators, including those who represent districts with prisons, did not return calls seeking comment.

Jim Accurso, media specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau, said in 2006 the agency concluded it would be too expensive to count prisoners by home address after reviewing its policy of counting them by institution.

He said accuracy also could be compromised because some inmates don't have previous addresses or are from other countries.

But the U.S. Census Bureau agreed last month to provide states with prison population counts by May 2011, early enough for most states to decide for themselves whether they want to count prisoners as part of the population for redrawing legislative districts.

At least four states -- Illinois, Florida, Maryland and New York -- are considering legislation that would count inmates based on their previous home addresses for drawing legislative districts, Wagner said. Wisconsin is contemplating a constitutional amendment that would not allow prison populations to be counted for that purpose.

The 2010 census could have serious implications for cash-strapped Gary.

The city's population dropped about 18,500 people between the 2000 census and the 2006-2008 American Community Survey estimates, federal records show.

Counting state prison inmates from Gary would add nearly 700 people to the city's population, Indiana Department of Correction records show. Federal prison statistics were not available.

"We've always been undercounted, and because we've always been undercounted, we've lost money," Clay said. "This year we are going to tenaciously push the census count. We're going to really crank it up and be sure that everybody is counted."

Several Indiana counties, including one in Northwest Indiana, might lose if prisoners no longer are considered part of their population.

LaPorte County is home to two state prisons: Indiana State Prison in Michigan City and Westville Correctional Facility. The two prisons housed a combined 5,513 inmates as of Jan. 1, state records show.

Inmates accounted for about 59.4 percent of Westville's total population in the 2000 census, a town spokeswoman said.

LaPorte County Commissioner Barb Huston, D-LaPorte, said she does not believe inmates should be part of the redistricting equation -- even though it may hurt the area she represents.

"It probably would hurt us," she said. "I just don't think -- if they are incarcerated and they're not going to be allowed to vote for many, many years -- that they would influence the (legislative) districts."

Inmates are not allowed to vote while they are incarcerated. But Indiana allows convicted felons to vote upon release.

Dale Ho, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., said the process for counting prisoners is an issue of fairness and racial equality.

Nationally, blacks comprise less than 13 percent of the overall population. But they represent more than 41 percent of federal and state prison populations, he said.

The organization advocates counting prisoners by hometown or, as a second choice, not counting them at all in drawing legislative districts.

Ho said the current method of counting inmates where their prisons are located, usually in rural areas that are predominately Caucasian, artificially inflates the population and, potentially, representation in state government.

"The current method of counting prisoners dilutes the political power of African-American communities in a way that is undemocratic," Ho said. "There's no reason why my vote should count less because I don't live next door to a prison."

NEW MATH: Gary Mayor Rudy Clay wants state lawmakers to consider legislation to count prison inmates in their last hometown, not where they are incarcerated. Counting state prison inmates from Gary would add nearly 700 people to the city's census population.

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