A new federal law directing the Census Bureau to study how prisoners are counted could have far-reaching implications for the distribution of political clout in Texas and elsewhere, says the Austin American-Statesman. The provision orders the bureau to examine whether it could count prisoners as living at their address at the time of incarceration instead of at their prison addresses. Under the bureau’s “usual residence” rule, which counts people where they sleep and live at the time the census is taken, prisoners are counted as living in the community where they are incarcerated rather than in the neighborhood they call home.
Where prisoners are counted – in penitentiaries usually in remote areas far from home – shifts political power, taking federal and state dollars, and social services, from urban areas to rural ones, and ultimately skews a state’s public policy agenda, contend researchers who have advocated for the change. One Census Bureau official is skeptical about changing the method, and some rural lawmakers said the population numbers prisons bring in is critical for bringing government dollars to their regions. Texas has two state House districts that have almost 12 percent of their residents behind bars. Ten Texas counties have more than 20 percent of their citizens in prison. Those prisoners hail primarily from the state’s urban areas and typically return to those cities after their release. “Changing the way prisoners are counted would lead “to a better count and a more just distribution of public funds,” said Kenneth Prewitt, a professor of public affairs at Columbia University who was the Census Bureau director from 1998 to 2001.