Change How Inmates Are Counted

Chip Shields

Prisoners of the Census: End Prison-Based Gerrymandering

That Census form you just got in the mail has a lot of influence on where federal dollars get spent in your community and the strength of your representation in Salem. If you haven't filled it out, you should. Especially since Thursday was Census Day.

And the next time you're asked to check the boxes about your ethnic background or count how many children live in your household, rest assured, I'm working hard to make sure you and your loved ones are counted fairly.

That's why I introduced Senate Bill 1028 (pdf) in the 2010 special session. This bill would end prison-based gerrymandering, which counts prison inmates in the districts where they are kept behind bars. This means that communities around the state that house prisons actually get super-representation that should be coming to the urban neighborhoods where the inmates committed their crimes, were raised, and/or still have family members. The bill will be reintroduced in 2011.

I believe that inmates should be counted as residents of the communities they call home, not as constituents of far away towns where they are prohibited by Oregon law from residing after release.

If you'd like to know more about why this matters to you, go to Peter Wagner's site Prisoners of the Census . He has been working tirelessly to help improve how prisoners are counted. Check out his recent article, originally posted in the publication Insights on Law and Society by the American Bar Association.

In the meantime, don't forget to fill out and return the Census form. It matters when you're counted right.

Comments

  • Janice Thompson (unverified)
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    Common Cause Oregon thanks Sen. Shields for introducing this important bill and was glad for the opportunity to testify in support in the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions.

    Some have stated a concern that counting prisoners where they lived before incarceration will make already large rural districts that include prisons even larger. This increases the costs of those senators and representatives in representing their districts and is a valid concern. The solution to that problem, though, is to include what I call a rural fairness differential when allocating legislative budgets and making per diem reimbursement politics. This is already done to a certain extent regarding reimbursements, but more is needed.

    The bottom line is that it isn't an either/or situation. What is fair is for prisoners to be counted for redistricting on the basis of what they consider home. What is also fair is for rural legislators to receive adequate resources to represent their larger districts regardless of whether or not it includes a prison and is affected by Sen. Shields' bill.

  • Kurt Hagadakis (unverified)
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    Thanks for highlighting this abuse. It is a good thing to know about in general, as it's something we can agitate and legislate for all across the country. The practice is really a travesty.

    As an aside that will never happen- costs too much- I would like to see a return to the pre-1860 style of census, where people were interviewed, instead of letting them complete the form themselves. I had a fried that traced his genealogy back to 1350, and never once was the family name spelled differently (which is amazing, considering that there were no spelling rules and NOTHING was spelled like it is today in 1350), until 1860, where the surname's first letter was recorded as "K", not "C", ultimately, because it was completed by the barely literate gr-gr-grandmother.

    It would also reduce the "pet overcount", which can be quite high. The critical data about history is often very inaccurate, when completed by a single individual. Finally, leg is probably needed to look at privacy rules. I'm regularly seeing people live well past the time when their early census data is publicly available. I proved a point with my mother-in-law by going to the 1930 census and showing her something about where they were living that she remembered incorrectly, which is pretty much exactly what you're not supposed to be able to do with it. (I think it's about 2 years until 1940 is released. Finally I'll be able to prove my point empirically that "white flight" and suburbia didn't begin with the 1950s, but was a direct result of people relocating to overseas muster locales after the war and never returning "home". Oakland in particular. The voluntary second wave following Steinbeck's well documented refugee first wave.)

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    Interesting and helpful context, Janice. Thank you.

  • mlw (unverified)
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    The way prisoners are counted by the census is the gift that keeps on giving to the conservative jurisdictions that generally house prisons. However, to be fair, let's remember that Portland and its liberal suburbs have consistently campaigned against siting of prisons in the metro area, despite studies that show prisoners do better if incarcerated in the communities that they will be returning to. Remember the NIMBYism that went on in Wilsonville.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    Anyone interested in these questions should also read Amy Bach's fantastic and depressing book "ORDINARY INJUSTICE: how America holds court." Riveting.

    http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780805074475-1

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    I have no problem with this change. However the same philosophy should then be extended to counting college students. Seems they also give a disproportionate "count" to Ashland, Eugene, Corvallis and Portland.

    Why not also count them where "home" is, where the support, health coverage and tax deduction reside?

    Apples to apples, and all college students over age 18 are still able to vote.

  • verasoie (unverified)
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    Chip,

    Thanks for doing this. I appreciate your leadership on this and many other issues as one of your constituents.

    Two questions:

    1) Will a legislative change in 2011 be in time to affect the redistricting? I must assume so, although this isn't entirely clear in your post.

    2) Why did this get scuttled this year?

  • Marvin McConoughey (unverified)
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    Mr. Shields believes "that inmates should be counted as residents of the communities they call home, not as constituents of far away towns where they are prohibited by Oregon law from residing after release."

    I can support that idea, and propose expanding it to apply equally to college students throughout Oregon.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    Of course, college students already ARE counted where they call home, as they live in their college towns. Incarcerated persons no more live "in" the communities where they are incarcerated than airline pilots live in the sky.

    When you restore inmates the right to vote while imprisoned, then we can talk about whether they should be counted where they are forced to live in cages.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    Sorry George, college students do not call their college dorm rooms, or trendy co-op apts "home. It is where their cell phone bills go, their tuition and rent comes from and whence there medical/dental insurance resides.

    As to thos poor folks forced to live in cages; would you entertain having them all come live in your neighborhood to continue their anti-sicial behavior and criminal activitiy?

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    On college students..that one is kind of tricky, IMO. When a student first goes off to college and is still coming back to the parent's home (or hometown) for spring and summer vacation, then it's more appropriate to count them there. But if they're living independently and staying in the college town to work (for example) during the breaks, then they should be counted as a resident of that town.

    That one doesn't seem quite as cut and dried to me as those who are incarcerated.

  • OpCtr (unverified)
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    I am no Census guru, but college students are counted where they are living on "April 10th" (or whatever the official date was).....just like prisoners. It does not matter if it is a dorm, apartment or where you go on spring break (duh!!!)....It does not count you differently if you are working (duh!!!!!).

    This bill should state if a County wants its "incarcerated citizens" to be counted they have to update their land use maps to set aside and zone (not own but zone) enough acreage site a large enough facility to house the number of inmates they have sent to other Counties. When that occurs they get to count the prisoners.

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