Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Census Bureau to States: Count Prisoners Where You Want

with 7 comments

The U.S. Census Bureau has agreed to release 2010 population data in a way that will give states the option of whether or not to count prisoners as residents of the county where they’re incarcerated. Although it’s too late for prisoners to be counted at their home addresses in the 2010 Census, this announcement paves at least some of the way for reforms being urged by civil rights groups around the country to eliminate the practice of so-called “prison gerrymandering.” The New York Times reports:

A number of states — including Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New York and Wisconsin — are weighing legislation requiring that prisoners be counted at their last known address — for purposes of reapportionment, a change that would likely favor larger and mostly Democratic cities.

In New York, the change could prove pivotal because of the see-saw fight for control of the State Senate and the fact that the state faces the loss of at least one Congressional seat after the 2010 census.

“Most people in prison in America are urban and African-American or Latino,” Representative William Lacy Clay, a Missouri Democrat who is chairman of the census subcommittee, wrote the bureau, but the 2010 census “will again be counting incarcerated people as residents of the rural, predominantly white communities that contain prisons.”

Other groups that have lobbied for the change include the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc. and Demos, a research and advocacy organization.

The New York Times editorialized its approval of the Census change here; I previously blogged about the issue here.


Written by sara

February 11, 2010 at 2:01 pm

7 Responses

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  1. If the last known address is at the time of admission it might be a county jail. If it is the address at the time of arrest it could be in another state.

    John Neff

    February 11, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    • Thanks for the comment, John. Those are good points. It looks like the New York legislation specifies “the residential address of such person prior to incarceration (if any),” which presumably is intended to preclude using the county jail as the last address, but I haven’t carefully analyzed the legislation to confirm how it defines these terms.

      The full text of the New York State Senate bill is here:

      Here are some additional web resources on the issue:


      February 11, 2010 at 2:37 pm

      • Also, I suppose that even if the county jail were listed as the last address for some inmates, that would still be preferable to state prison from the point of view of the legislators’ intent, since it would place the prisoner closer to their home community. (Assuming the prisoner was detained and tried in or near his/her home county.)


        February 11, 2010 at 2:40 pm

  2. My experience is that data on place of residence of jail inmates is very unreliable. We try to verify the place of residence when we assess the risk of pretrial release and in more than 20% of the cases we can’t get the information or we are pretty sure it is bogus.

    OTOH if you used the county of the court that committed them to prison as the place of residence that information would be reliable (normally the pretrial stage lasts long enough that they could register to vote in that county).

    By the way do you know how they will deal with the problem of non-US citizens because some federal grants and intergovernmental fund transfers depend on the number of residents (of all nationalities).

    John Neff

    February 11, 2010 at 6:12 pm

  3. […] my earlier posts on prisoners and the Census, click here and […]

  4. […] prison. The good news is that, although it’s not a full solution, this year the Census Bureau will release population data in a way that allows states to disaggregate prisoners from population numbers when it is time for […]

  5. Florida lists all inmates either Black or White..Hispanics are considered white. So much for an accurate census in Florida!

    Angie Green

    April 13, 2010 at 6:35 pm

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