Incarcerated People and the Census

January 11, 2005

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This report is the first in a series outlining the state level effects of the United States Census Bureau's policy for counting prison populations. Currently the Bureau enumerates incarcerated people as residents of the towns where they are imprisoned rather than as residents of their home communities. When coupled with the nations rising incarceration rate and pattern of building prisons in rural areas, this facially benign policy produces harmful results. In Census 2000, the Bureaus counting method inflated the size of rural populations across the nation and skewed their demographic characteristics. The approach also decreased the size of urban communities.

As a result, federal and state funds keyed to population left areas where most people are arrested and sentenced and entered places where they are incarcerated. Such funds are generally not used for prison programs or upkeep, but instead flow into coffers serving the community outside the prison. Greater population counts also boosted the political clout of rural prison towns at the expense of urban communities and neighboring rural areas without prisons. For these reasons, the Census Bureaus current counting policy violates its twin principles of fairness and accuracy. This piece discusses how the Bureaus prison count method affects Virginia communities.