WASHINGTON — States are getting new leeway in tallying their prisoners in the 2010 census — a move that could reshape the American political map, increasing urban population numbers while reducing the figures for rural voting districts where inmates are incarcerated.
The Census Bureau said this week it would release data on prison populations to states when they redraw legislative boundaries next year.
Previously, the agency provided the breakdowns on group quarters, like prisons, after states finished their high-stakes redistricting. That resulted in districts with prisons getting extra representation in their legislatures, despite laws in some states that say a prison cell is not a residence.
Now that the prison data is being made available earlier, states can decide whether they want to count inmates for purposes of redistricting and, if so, where they should be considered residents — in rural towns, where prisons are often built, or cities, where many prisoners came from.
Census director Robert Groves made the decision after weeks of discussion with Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay and with public interest and African American groups. They called it an important first step toward shifting federal resources and representation back to urban communities, where they believe the aid is needed the most.
“For too long, communities with large prisons have received greater representation in government on the backs of people who have no voting rights in the prison community,” said Brenda Wright, director of the Democracy Program at Demos, a research and advocacy organization. “The Census Bureau’s new data will greatly assist states and localities in correcting this injustice.”
The impact could be strongly felt in states such as New York, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, California, Texas and Maryland, where prisons are found in more sparsely populated areas. In New York, for instance, most of the 60,000 inmates live in prisons in rural upstate communities, even though half the inmate population committed crimes in New York City.
In Anamosa, Iowa, which boasts a population of roughly 5,700, some 95 percent of a voting ward are made up of non-voting prisoners in the state’s largest penitentiary.
Still, analysts say the Census Bureau’s move could prove politically messy. They note that the agency will not release the prison data until May 2011, more than two months after states are given their initial population data by district, so some legislatures may opt not to wait for the additional information or only make cursory use of it.
Also, while the prison data will have breakdowns on where inmates are located, it will not include information on the prisoners’ original hometowns. Thus, states will have to gather that information on their own if they choose to count them in different locations.
“This is going to be a big enough deal where states will have to make some decisions,” said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a Virginia-based firm that crunches political numbers. “We may see an impact ultimately where one political party decides to go one way and draws districts accordingly, the other party goes another way, and we end up with a court case to sort it out.”
The population count, held every 10 years, is used to apportion U.S. House of Representatives and state legislative and county seats as well as distribute more than $400 billion in federal aid.
New Yorker Chevelle Johnson, 44, who said he was formerly incarcerated, returned to his New York City community of Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn, upon being released from prison in 2007.
“A lot of us come home and we can’t even vote,” he said. “We need political power in our communities so that when we do come home, we come home to something ... to things that will help us not get reincarcerated.”
While the 2010 data will not include hometown information, advocacy groups say they are continuing their push for prisoners to be counted as residents of the communities they came from for the next decennial census in 2020.
Associated Press writer Cristian Salazar in New York City contributed to this report.