Monday, February 15, 2010

"Urban, Rural Areas Battle For Census Prison Populace"

From this evening's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered, one of those stories that makes you say, "Huh?" and them "hmmnn."  Seems there's a controversy brewing over how this year's census will count prisoners - as part of the population of the place where they are imprisoned, or their community of origin.  You might ask yourself, "How is this a story for the Land Use Prof Blog?"  Well, as it turns out, the controversy creates an urban/rural (and a racial) split.  The prisoners come from African-American and Latino urban areas, and the places where they are imprisoned are rural and predominantly white.  Both areas tend to be poor, and with census numbers come federal dollars to address their most pressing issues - including schools and jobs.

It's always troubling when the neediest folks are pitted against each other for limited resources.  We'll see if some happy medium can be found on this issue.

Jamie Baker Roskie

UPDATE: Turns out the funding issue is a bit of a red herring, according to Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative.  The real issue is redistricting, and the increase of political influence for districts that have prisons.  See his comment to this post, below, which explains the issues more clearly.

Budgeting, Community Economic Development, Crime, Federal Government, New York, Race | Permalink

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Ironically, this conflict is avoidable, because it's not a zero-sum game.

It turns out how incarcerated people are counted in the Census has no impact on funding received in urban areas, and almost no impact on rural areas that contain prisons. (There is an extremely small distortion on funds intended for rural areas with prison towns getting an extra share of funds intended for similarly situated rural communities without prisons.)

But even that is beyond the point, as the real impact is on redistricting. There, the law is clear. Most state constitutions or election law statutes say that incarceration does not change a residence.

So rural areas that contain prisons benefit at in state legislative districts. Who loses? Everybody, urban and rural, who doesn't have a prison. True, urban communities lose slightly more than others, but compared to the prison districts, everybody loses roughly the same amount.

But even folks in state legislative districts that contain prisons often lose because their county legislature also has districts. I was recently in a small city in Iowa where they had a district that was 96% prisoners. Until the city abolished the districts, the handful of people who lived near the prison had 25 times as much political influence as the people who lived in other districts.

That's an extreme example, but not unique. There are county legislative districts that are 50, 60 or even 80% prisoners. So unless you live immediately adjacent to a prison, prison-based gerrymandering hurts everyone -- urban and rural -- somewhere.

Posted by: Peter Wagner | Feb 15, 2010 7:08:47 PM