Today, State Senator Eric Schneiderman, Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, State Senators Eric Adams and Liz Krueger, Assemblymembers Adriano Espaillat, Micah Kellner, Keith Wright and Adam Clayton Powell, Council Members Robert Jackson, Miguel Martinez, and Melissa Mark Viverito and criminal justice and democracy advocates called on the United States Census Bureau to begin counting prisoners in their home communities, rather than where they are incarcerated. Elected officials and advocates also announced the beginning of a national letter-writing campaign by local elected officials in New York and around the country to urge a change in this policy.
"Counting prisoners as residents of the prison districts where they do not vote or otherwise participate in those communities is simply bad policy," said State Senator Eric Schneiderman. "Disenfranchised people become an undeserved source of political power for legislators who benefit from locking up more people for longer sentences."
"The Census Bureau’s insistence on counting prisoners as residents of rural counties creates big problems when counties like St. Lawrence go to draw county legislative districts. Because our county districts are so small, a single prison can have a huge negative impact on equal voting power," said letter co-author Tedra L. Cobb, vice-Chair of the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators.
Yesterday, federal, state, and local legislators presented asigned by 32 elected officials from New York, Texas, and Illinois to Charles Kincannon, Director of the Census Bureau, requesting that the agency collect the home addresses of all incarcerated persons in the next national decennial census and count them at those addresses. According to these officials, counting prisoners at their pre-incarceration address is essential for compliance with the "One Person, One Vote" rulings of the Supreme Court, which require that legislative districts at every level of government contain equal numbers of residents in order to ensure fair and equal representation for all.
"The Census Bureau considers redistricting to be the second most important use of its data and it wants to hear from the elected officials who use that data." said Prison Policy Initiative Executive Director Peter Wagner. "I call upon all supporters of democracy to ask their own elected officials to join New York State Senator Eric Schneiderman and St. Lawrence County Legislator Tedra Cobb in their appeal to the Census Bureau."
In addition to the Prison Policy Initiative, the elected officials were joined by criminal justice and democracy advocacy groups, including the Brennan Center for Justice, DEMOS, Citizens Against Recidivism, Coalition for Parole Restoration, Seven Neighborhoods Action Partnership, JusticeWorks Community, Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, Community Service Society, The Correctional Association of New York, Families Rally for Emancipation and Empowerment (FREE!), and the Drug Policy Alliance.
Currently, the Census Bureau includes everyone housed in federal, state, and local prisons in its count of the general population of the Census block that contains the prison. New York State law, however, defines residence as the place where one voluntarily lives. Many states, including New York, also have constitutional clauses or election law statutes that explicitly declare that incarceration does not change a residence.
Unfortunately, the current Census methodology disregards this, instead counting a significant proportion of our national population in the wrong place. According to advocates, crediting the population of prisoners to the Census block where they are temporarily and involuntarily held creates electoral inequities at all levels of government.
"Every decade, states use federal census data to update their legislative district boundaries," continued Mr. Wagner. "The goal is to ensure that each district contains the same population, as required by the federal constitution’s "one-person, one-vote" rule. The Census Bureau counts people in prison where their bodies are located on census day, not where they come from and where they will return, on average, 34 months later. The Bureau’s current practice made sense before prison populations became large enough to distort democracy. However, more people now live in prison than our three least populous states combined, and African Americans are imprisoned at 7 times the rate of whites. Today, this Census practice undermines the rule of law," Peter Wagner explained.
"This is a fundamental question of equity," said State Senator Liz Krueger. "The geographic communities where people who end up in our prisons come from are being underrepresented in Albany. As a result, once these prisoners have paid their dues to society and return home, they are not provided access to the community-based resources and services they need in order to move on with their lives and become productive citizens."
"It’s only fair that we count prisoners from their last home address," stated Adam Clayton Powell, IV. "In most cases, the prisoners will return shortly to their home address."
"Counting prisoners, for census purposes, as members of the community where they are incarcerated has profound implications," said Councilmember Robert Jackson. "I urge federal officials to review this mistaken policy, and to restore prisoners to the communities where they lived, have ties and to which they will return."
"The ‘one person, one vote’ rulings of the Supreme Court are in direct contradiction with this policy," said Councilmember Miguel Martinez. "Even though they may not recognize this in Washington, the Census Bureau policies have a real impact on my community and many other communities in New York City."
"Counting prisoners as ‘residents’ of upstate districts instead of their home communities distorts representation in the legislature and violates the principle of one-person, one-vote," said Brenda Wright, Legal Director of the Democracy Program at Demos.
Senator Schneiderman has introduced legislation in the Senate (S1934), which would bring the state’s practice into compliance with the state constitution. The bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Espaillat in the Assembly, would require New York to correct the inaccurate population data that results from the Census Bureau’s practice of counting prisoners as residents of prison communities. Thirteen counties in New York State already correct the data, but many other counties are unaware of the democratic distortion or the fact that they are permitted to alter Census data.
"If passed, the legislation that I’m sponsoring in the Assembly and Senator Schneiderman is sponsoring in the Senate would fix the inequity that is perpetuated by our current policy," said Assemblymember Adriano Espaillat. "By counting prisoners in the places where they are incarcerated, the Census Bureau is effectively shortchanging my constituents from receiving fair representation."
According to the Prison Policy Initiative report, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York, seven New York state senatorial districts met minimum population size requirements only because they included large prisons in the population total. The actual voting residents in these seven districts have inequitably inflated voting power relative to the inhabitants of the rest of the state.
"Not surprisingly, politicians whose jobs depend on packed prisons are often the strongest supporters of the mandatory minimums and harsh drug laws that have kept prisons full and devastated urban communities," said Senator Schneiderman. "In the meantime, the voting power of the people in the largely poor and minority communities those prisoners come from is diluted, making it more difficult for those communities to advocate for the resources and services all everyone needs to better their lives and end the cycle of poverty and crime."
As part of this ongoing campaign, elected officials and advocates pledged to continue recruiting elected officials from across the country to request this policy change from the Federal Census Bureau. In the meantime, if the Census refuses to change its policy, elected officials vowed to continue pushing for a remedy in New York State.
The letter is available at www.prisonersofthecensus.org/letter/