Huge Flaw Ruins 2000 U.S. Census
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Huge Flaw Biases 2000 U.S. Census
LOCKED UP IN THE CENSUS COUNT
This op-ed first apeared in the Chicago Tribune — you are seeing it here with the permission of Marc Mauer. For additional information, visit The Sentencing Project.
by Tracy Huling and Marc Mauer
As the nation prepares to complete the Census, a little-known counting provision portends what might appear to be an unheralded triumph of integration — significant black and Hispanic populations in once lily-white rural towns. These demographics are not the legacy of the civil rights movement, though. Rather, the new minority denizens of rural America are part of the nation’s burgeoning prison population.
The Census counts inmates, mostly residents of inner city communities, as part of the populations of towns where they are incarcerated. The combined impact of this regulation and the near doubling of the prison population since 1990 could yield a substantial shift in government dollars and political power from urban to rural areas.
Prisons have become a growth industry in rural America and the majority of new prisons are now built in rural communities. In just the period 1980-1991, 213 new prisons were constructed in rural communities, more than in the previous hundred years combined.
Prison officials have long sought to locate prisons in rural areas, often against the wishes of local residents, in part due to lower land values. But many local elected officials now actively lobby for new prisons. Last year, 27 communities in Illinois offered financial incentives to the state in a bid to secure a new prison. In large part this reflects the changing economics of rural areas. The decline of the family farm and the relocation of manufacturing jobs overseas have left many towns bereft of a strong economic base. Compounding this is the prison system’s reduced emphasis on rehabilitation. Why bother locating prisons near an inmate’s family and community when warehousing has become the primary rationale for incarceration?
Housing prisoners in rural counties across America is reversing a long-standing trend of population loss. In Coxsackie, New York, 3,000 of the town’s 7,000 residents are inmates; more than half of Corcoran, California’s population of 21,000 are locked up in prison. And as rural communities gain inmates, they harvest federal cash and political clout through funding formulas tied to population counts.
As the deadline for the Census approaches, more localities are rushing to get their piece of the pie. Last year, an Arizona law permitting municipalities to annex prisons set off a bidding war between the towns of Gila and Buckeye for neighboring prisons. Buckeye won and as a result expects to receive $1.3 million in additional government revenue.
Federal legislation introduced last year by Wisconsin Rep. Mark Green would allow states to count the prisoners they ship out of state as their own. In introducing the legislation, Rep. Green noted his concern for the loss of a Congressional seat for his state as a result of its contracting to house thousands of prisoners out of state.
Not surprisingly, the benefits that rural communities derive from the Census count come at the expense of urban neighborhoods, whose members represent a substantial portion of the inmates in rural prisons. In New York State, for example, while 89 percent of prisoners are housed in rural areas, three-quarters of the inmate population come from just seven neighborhoods in New York City. These neighborhoods, and prisoners generally, are disproportionately comprised of low-income minorities – half of all inmates are African American and one-sixth Latino. Thus, the urban communities that are hardest hit by both crime and criminal justice policies are now similarly disadvantaged by losing funding and political influence through the reapportionment process.
The rural rush to build prisons is especially disturbing given that much of the growth in incarceration stems from the “war on drugs” that began in the 1980s. With eleven times as many drug offenders now incarcerated as in 1980, national drug and sentencing policies have vastly accelerated the population transfer of inmates from urban to rural communities.
The impact of an expanding prison system on political influence is but one of a set of what might be considered unintended consequences of America’s zeal to incarcerate. What does it mean, for example, for black males born today to know that three of every ten can expect to do time in prison in their lifetimes? Or that nearly four million Americans will be locked out of voting in the presidential election as a result of a current or past felony conviction? Or that more than 1.5 million children have to cope with the burdens of having a parent who is imprisoned?
Both urban and rural communities face serious economic problems. But the elaborate shell game of ever increasing incarceration distracts us from pursuing more constructive economic development while failing to address the underlying problems of poverty and substance abuse that contribute so significantly to crime.
Tracy Huling is a criminal justice consultant and producer of Yes, In My Backyard, a documentary examining rural dependence on prisons. Marc Mauer is the Assistant Director of The Sentencing Project and the author of Race to Incarcerate.
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