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How should prisoners be counted for the census?

Thursday, February 11th, 2010



Most communities aren’t anxious to claim criminals as their citizens. But when it comes to taking the 2010 census, cities like Philadelphia see a value in counting prisoners serving time elsewhere as Philly’s own. Whyy’s Susan Phillips reports.

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The U-S Census counts everyone where they live at the time they fill out the form. So college students are counted where they go to school, and prisoners are counted where they are imprisoned.

But researchers say that creates some distortion when it comes to defining political districts.

A recent study found that 8 of Pennsyvlania’s 203 state House districts wouldn’t be big enough to have a representative without the prisoners housed there.

Some have tried to change how prisoners are counted, but failed. Brenda Wright of the liberal advocacy group DEMOS says Census bureau policy directly contradicts state residency law.

“Pennsylvania law says that a prisoner cannot be considered a resident of the place where he or she is incarcerated. They have to be considered a resident of their home community before they’re incarcerated.”

Wright says 40 percent of the state’s prisoners lived in Philadelphia before they were incarcerated, and most will return when their prison term is up.

She says counting them where they’re imprisoned gives voters in those districts benefits they don’t deserve, violating the one-person one-vote principle.

Columbia University professor Nate Persily says there’s no easy answer to the problem.

“The idea of just counting them where they committed their crimes or where they lived before committing their crimes is unfeasible. You can’t reallocate them to houses and addresses that are now occupied by other people. The question is whether you could remedy the distortion that is caused by assuming that they are just like their neighbors who are outside of prison.”

Persily says the count doesn’t impact federal funds.

Philadelphia officials disagree, and say prisoners should be counted in their home counties. They say they’re keeping track of where incarcerated Philadelphia residents are, in preparation for a potential challenge to the 2010 census. I’m Susan Phillips, Whyy news.


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