WALLA WALLA - Call it the 3.9 percent question.
Near the end of January, Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla held 2,316 inmates. That number represents 3.9 percent of the population of Walla Walla County, which was 59,200 people in 2009.
So the question is: Do those 2,316 people count as local residents? Or should they be counted as residents in the cities and counties where they came from?
How that question gets answered could play a significant role in how redistricting is carried out at local, state or possibly even federal levels.
In the past inmates were included in the overall population count for any given area, but the breakdown for people in group quarters, which includes the prison, was held back until states finished redistricting to reflect any changes in population.
But in a recent policy change, Census officials have decided to make data on inmate populations available earlier. "The change will allow states to decide whether to count inmates for purposes of redistricting," The Associated Press reported in February.
Dean Foster, who was a member of the 2001 Redistricting Commission, said in his opinion the answer to the question of how you count inmates lies in the Washington state Constitution, specifically in Article 2, Section 43, Subsection 5.
That subsection reads, in part: "Each district shall contain a population, excluding nonresident military personnel, as nearly equal as practicable to the population of any other district..." (italics added).
Foster said the wording appears fairly definitive. "The population is where it is at the time," he said, with the only exception being nonresident military personnel.
But another member of the commission, Graham Johnson, wasn't as certain.
"That's a good question," he said. "I doubt there's any clarification in state law. I would hope that the issue is brought to the attention of the Legislature when the (new) redistricting commission is formed."
That will happen in 2011 when the Washington State Redistricting Commission will be created to tackle redistricting. Four members of the five-person commission will be appointed by the legislative leaders of the two largest political parties in each house.
Those four will then choose a fifth member who will serve as a nonvoting chairman.
According to the Secretary of State's office, the commission must present new legislative and congressional district boundaries to the Legislature for approval during the 2012 legislative session. The new boundaries will be in effect for the 2012 elections.
Locally, the prison population will come into play when the Walla Walla County Auditor's Office adjusts the districts for county commissioners and port commissioners.
Having the group quarters data in time for the process could force some voting precinct boundaries to be redrawn, said County Auditor Karen Martin. This would affect commission District 2, where the penitentiary is located.
The last time redistricting was carried out in 2001, the prison population was included in the total population count, but not broken out. When redistricting was done that year, population parity was achieved by simply transferring four voting precincts from District 3 into District 2.
"We may not get so lucky this time," Martin said.
Tim Storey, a senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said some states are considering reallocating prisoners to reflect their original hometowns, "but there is no consensus yet."
While the Census Bureau may release the group home data earlier, "the decision now is whether a state or multiple states will want to spend the time or resources to reallocate prisoners out of the census data to their permanent home of record," he said.
According to the NCSL, Congress directed the Census Bureau in 2006 to study the issue of tabulating prisoners in their hometowns rather than where they are incarcerated.
The study produced a list of "uncertainties and challenges" identified by the Census Bureau. Among these was that there is no generally agreed-upon definition of "a permanent home of record," that it would entail a huge increase in the cost to enumerate prisoners and that the security concerns "would make enumeration difficult."
At the completion of the study, "Congress did not further pursue counting prisoners ‘at their permanent home of record,'" the NCSL reported.