A new Maryland law – the first of its kind – changed the way state prisoners were counted in the 2010 census. Historically, prisoners have been counted according to the location of the facility where they reside, which artificially inflates the populations of prison towns. Under the new law, enacted in April 2010, Maryland prisoners will now be counted as residents of the last place they lived prior to their incarceration.
The statute significantly affects Baltimore, which for decades has been suffering a decrease in population and which produces roughly 6 in 10 of Maryland’s prisoners. As a result of the new law, Baltimore’s official population could grow by 12,000 – which will benefit the city when congressional and state legislative lines are redrawn following the once-per-decade census count.
Civil rights activists applauded the statutory change. “There’s enough people moved around to break how democracy works,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative, which has spearheaded a nationwide effort to reform how prisoners are counted in the census.
But officials in rural areas of Maryland with large prison populations opposed the change. Kevin Kelly, a Democrat who represents Allegany County, where 4,500 state and federal prisoners are incarcerated, said the prisoners cost the county money. “When they have to be hospitalized, they’re going to be treated in our hospitals,” Kelly noted. “My phones ring when the correctional officers are injured or worse, and I deal with the community concerns.”
Baltimore officials see it differently, arguing that many areas of the city are unfairly losing political clout. “I don’t think fairness and political power are mutually exclusive,” said state Senator Verna L. Jones, adding that some of the city’s neighborhoods have lost enough population to jeopardize the interests of those who remain. “It’s about fairness, because you have these individuals who have families living in these communities, and because the lines are going to be redrawn, Baltimore might have been in danger of losing representation that we could not afford to lose,” she said.
Similar laws specifying that prisoners must be counted as residents of the last place they lived prior to their incarceration have since been passed in Delaware and New York. [See: PLN, Oct. 2010, p.18]. Such statutes are seen as a common sense solution to inaccurately counting prisoners as residents of the facilities where they are housed.
“They play no part in our community,” said Edward P. Welsh, a Republican county lawmaker from Attica, New York. “They can’t vote, they can’t take part in the community, and I’m assuming they don’t want to be here – so why are they being counted here?”
In February 2010, the Census Bureau agreed to give states more power to address the issue of how prisoners are counted in the 2010 census. The Bureau is expected to provide state officials with block level census data by May 2011, so they can decide how to apply that data to the redistricting process.
“The census is going to say where the prisons are and how many people are in them, which will enable states the practical choice of counting them in the wrong place or not counting them at all,” Wagner explained.
Sources: Baltimore Sun, www.prisonpolicy.org, New York Times
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