In November 2005, Congress directed the Census Bureau to take a first step in the direction of changing the way it counts people in prison. In a conference report accompanying H.R. 2862, last years Science, State, Justice, Commerce and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, it directed the Bureau to study the feasibility of using the home of record information to enumerate people in prison. Congress gave the Bureau 90 days, until February 2006, to report its study findings to Congress.
The Congressional directive raises three questions for consideration. First, it requires the Bureau to define home for the purpose of enumerating people in prison. Second, it requires the agency to consider how best to count the majority of people in prison, those with accurate and verifiable home addresses. Third, it necessitates consideration of how to enumerate exceptional cases, those in which a person in prison cannot be counted at his or her home address.
People in prison are temporarily absent from their home communities. Yet at census time the Bureau enumerates them as if prison were their usual residence. In the past the Census Bureau has looked beyond physical presence in deciding how to define usual residence, arguing in the U.S. Supreme Court that a person’s home can be based on an enduring tie to a community. Because most people in prison have a home address they can report on census day, the Bureau should treat them as it treats the majority of the people it counts, by providing a form to complete or conducting an interview if necessary. As this report discusses, the exceptional cases, those in which a home address is unavailable, can be enumerated in other ways.
Congress’s November 2005 directive was a critically important step en route to making the 2010 prison count fairer and more accurate. Given the quick 90-day turnaround, spanning the holiday-filled months of November, December and January, and the lack of funds appropriated to conduct a full study, the February 2006 report should not be the last word from the Bureau. Congress should provide the Census Bureau with more time and funds to conduct a thorough test of this issue, one that will be the basis for an improved 2010 prison count.