Piece of fairness, accuracy argument missed

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Your editorial, "Inmates should be counted as residents of site of prison" overstates what the Census Bureau has agreed to do and misses an important piece of the fairness and accuracy argument that led to a change in when the Census Bureau publishes prison counts.

You argued that Walla Walla wants prisoners reflected in the Census counts it uses to apply for grants. That will not change.

You argued that the Census Bureau is giving states the option of counting prisoners at their home addresses. That's not happening.

All the Census Bureau has done is agreed to publish one data table that contains the prison populations early, before the redistricting process is complete. Now, states and counties have the option to draw districts without regard to the prison population.

And if the Washington Legislature decides to take this opportunity, it will find support in the state constitution and in the practices of 100 rural counties across the country, which all declare that prisoners are not residents of the prison location.

The Washington state Constitution says that prisoners do not gain a residence in the prison town while they are incarcerated. Since prisoners can't vote and are not legal residents of the prison location, basing legislative districts on their counts results in enhancing the weight of votes cast near a prison. That is a violation the "one person one vote rule" and why more than 100 counties around the country fix the census problem by taking the prisoners out of the data prior to redistricting.

All the Census Bureau has done is make that process easier, by publishing one table about group quarters (which includes prisons) a few months earlier than they usually do.

This is significant because the prison count data used to arrive too late for redistricting committees to use. But the odds that this "new" data product would somehow change the very detailed formulas that distribute federal or state aid seems more than a little unlikely.

So since the prisoners can't vote, and since the Washington state Constitution says they aren't residents of Walla Walla, Washington would be right to not credit the prisoners to Walla Walla. But if Washington wants to go further and count prisoners at home, they won't find the Census Bureau's "new" data product much help.

Peter Wagner
executive director
Prison Policy Initiative
Easthampton, Mass.

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