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New Report: The Census Should Count Incarcerated People In Their Home Communities

January 11, 2005

For Immediate Release
Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Contact Information:
Natalia Kennedy, 212 998–6736

New Report: The Census Should Count Incarcerated People in Their Home Communities
Current Count Policy Robs Virginias Communities of Needed Funds

New York, NY – Today the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law released a report examining the fiscal and social impact of the U.S. Census Bureaus policy of enumerating incarcerated people as residents of the towns in which they are incarcerated, rather than as residents of their home communities. The report, Incarcerated People and the Census: Painting a Distorted Picture of Virginia, examines how the combination of tough on crime policies, rural prison siting, and the current prison count policy unfairly skews the flow of funding and produces an inaccurate demographic picture of the state.

Distorted Picture reports that for a brief period before the 2000 Census, rural Sussex County became the fastest-growing county in the nation. This magnificent growth was caused by two maximum-security facilities built in the county between 1998 and 1999. These two facilities made it appear as if Sussex had grown tremendously even though its non-prison population actually declined between the 1990 and 2000 Census counts. The prison-driven population increase drew an additional $120,700 to Sussex County for primary and secondary education alone. However, urban Henrico County, which hosts no prisons but is home to many residents sent away to them, lost $292, 900 of similar education funds. Funds like these could have been used to provide preventative and reintegration services, after-school programming, school supplies, and GED programs for at-risk youth and people returning home from prison.

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.

According to Distorted Picture, the current Census count policy not only misdirects funding, it also fails to provide an accurate picture of the size and demographics of Virginia communities. For example, Census 2000 figures indicate a tripling of the black population of rural Wise County. These numbers, however, result not from a burgeoning black community in one of Virginias most southwestern counties, but from prison construction there in 1998 and 1999. In fact, seventy-one percent of Wise Countys black population is behind bars. Because of the Census Bureaus counting method, Wise County grew by a putative 6.7% despite being one of the lowest growth counties in the state during the 1990s. The impact of this population increase would bring additional and state and federal funds into Wise County.

The good news is this policy is imminently fixable, says Patricia Allard, co-author of the report and Associate Counsel at the Brennan Center. Right now the Census Bureau is discussing how to change its residency rules, and improve the count. Its the perfect time to test new approaches to counting people in prison so the Bureau will be ready to go with a new more accurate method in 2010.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, founded in 1995, unites thinkers and advocates in pursuit of a vision of inclusive and effective democracy. Its mission is to develop and implement an innovative, nonpartisan agenda of scholarship, public education, and legal action that promotes equality and human dignity, while safeguarding fundamental freedoms.
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