Census 2010: Inmate Population Presents Unique Challenge
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With the U.S. Census count in full swing, a renewed effort is underway to reverse the practice of counting people in prisons as part of the upstate population rather than in their home communities.
"It's a crucial issue. We're talking about 40,000 people returning from the prison system annually," said Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College Executive Director Esmerelda Simmons.
Simmons says the average stay for a prisoner is three years and then most return home to their permanent residence.
"Communities rely on the census to justify needs for housing for education, for medical, health, hospitals, roads etcetera," Simmons said. "We felt it was unfair for people who were temporarily incarcerated upstate to be counted upstate when they are permanent residents in downstate."
There's now a bill pending in the state Legislature to address the issue.
"This is a very unfair, undemocratic and in fact, unconstitutional way in which we count individuals in New York State. And justice demands that we change it," said Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries.
Jeffries introduced the Prisoners of the Census Bill in the state Assembly earlier this year. If passed, it will boost city numbers which could affect how new state legislative and congressional district lines are drawn. The new district lines will be re-drawn for 2012 based on the numbers from this year's census.
"Central Brooklyn communities like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and Crown Heights that I represent regularly have five to six thousand inmates who come home from prison every year. Kings County is the largest county represented in the correctional system in terms of the number of inmates," Jeffries said.
It's not just New York City that faces an inmate-based gerrymandering problem. Most inmates across the country come from urban areas but are incarcerated in rural ones.
State Senator Eric Schneiderman, who is the sponsor of the bill in the state Senate, says New York can and should be the leader on the issue.
"The potential to restore political power to the poor communities that these prisoners come from is tremendous. And if we act this session, New York can be the first state to change this policy," Schneiderman said.
If the bill passes, the Department of Correction would then provide the last known residence for all those who are incarcerated as the new district lines are being re-drawn.