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National Academy of Sciences Discuss New Ways to Improve Decennial Census

June 2, 2005

For Immediate Release
Thursday, June 2, 2005

Contact Information:
Natalia Kennedy, 212 998–6736
Kirsten Levingston, 917 378–0040

National Academy of Sciences Discuss New Ways to Improve Decennial Census
Brennan Center Attorney Invited to Present on How to Count Incarcerated People

Incarcerated People Should be Counted in Their Home Communities

Washington, DC As part of its effort to ensure that every person in the country is counted in the right place by the Census Bureau, The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) gathered today to discuss ways to improve the Bureaus residence rules governing the decennial census. The NAS invited Ms. Patricia Allard, Associate Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, to present on how to improve the rule on counting people in prison. Right now the Bureau counts people in prison as residents of the towns in which they are incarcerated, rather than as residents of their home communities.

The combination of tough on crime policies, rural prison siting, and the current prison count policy unfairly skew the flow of funding to communities and produce an inaccurate picture of our nations communities, according to Ms. Allard.

The Census Bureaus method of counting incarcerated people as residents of prison towns instead of as residents of their home communities has grown increasingly problematic with time and shifting societal trends. Over the last thirty years the U.S. prison population has risen to unprecedented levels, while prisons have been built almost exclusively in rural regions far from the urban centers where most people are arrested and sentenced.

As a result the Census count artificially inflates populations in rural regions across the country and diminishes counts in urban communities often communities of color from which many incarcerated people come. The approach also skews demographic characteristics in both types of locale.

The policy has particularly pernicious effects in the District of Columbia, the site of todays NAS meeting, which ships its incarcerated population to prison facilities across the nation. Ironically, if an incarcerated D.C. residents prison term coincides with a decennial census count, he or she becomes one of the few D.C. residents whose physical presence on Census day has an effect on representation and redistricting. Yet the political benefit accrues not to the District his or her certain destination of return but to the host state, county and locality. The policy hurts the District financially as well. When D.C. residents were incarcerated in a Virginia prison prior to their dispersal into federal prisons across the country the District argued that the loss of residents would cost the District $60 million over ten years.

In recent months a growing movement has emerged to change how the Census counts incarcerated people. Last month District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams asked Representative Frank Wolf (R-Virginia), Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee to direct the United States Census Bureau to explore better methods for counting incarcerated people.

The Census has always strived to be accurate and fair, says Dr. Kenneth Prewitt, former Director of the Census Bureau. To meet these goals, we can no longer ignore the reality of the prison boom in this country. With over 650,000 people returning home from prison each year, we need to provide a clear picture of these communities so that policymakers can make informed decisions.

The question is whether the Bureau will heed advice from Dr. Prewitt and others to re-visit the current prison count method. The good news is this policy is imminently fixable, says Ms. Allard. Right now the Census Bureau is discussing how to change its residency rules, and improve the count. NAS has chosen the perfect time to address this issue so the Bureau will be ready to go with a new more accurate method in 2010.