Accuracy Counts

April 8, 2004

Through its decennial census and other data collection, the Census Bureau aims to provide an accurate picture of American society, one that informs national and local policymakers, agencies and organizations, and businesses that direct resources and services to diverse communities. However, the convergence of the Census Bureaus enumeration method and current criminal justice trends threaten the accuracy of this picture. First, the prison population has increased more than six-fold since 1970. While this nations prisons incarcerated 200,000 that year, they held over 1.4 million by the end of 2002. Second, U.S. prisons are overwhelmingly sited in rural areas often hundreds of miles from the urban centers from which the majority of inmates come. Third, over 650,000 people leave prison every year, virtually always returning to the neighborhood they lived in before their incarceration. And finally, the Census Bureaus policy is to count incarcerated people as residents of prison towns instead of their home communities. Given these current criminal justice trends, the Bureaus counting method disserves communities that lose significant numbers of people in at least two critical ways:

By denying vital information about the number of residents in prison, individuals who will
eventually return home from prison, the census misinforms policymakers, service providers
and community-based organizations.
By preventing communities from receiving their fair share of essential public dollars that
support services and programs for families, communities, and people returning home from

As it reviews and improves its methods for the next count the Census Bureau should reconsider its approach to enumerating people in prisons. Counting incarcerated people according to their home of record is the fairest and most accurate way to assess the true size and needs of urban communities, and to ensure equitable distribution of population-based funding and political power.