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40 civil rights groups urge census to stop miscounting prisoners

leadership-conferenceWASHINGTON—The Census Bureau has come under fire from a coalition of 40 civil rights, faith, and low-income groups for its proposal to continue miscounting prisoners as residents of their prisons, instead of their homes, leading to a “distortion of democracy” and a “discriminatory census result.”

In a letter sent to the Census Bureau, the broad coalition of organizations said: “The Bureau’s proposal to continue counting incarcerated people at the facility in which they are housed on Census Day ignores the transient and temporary nature of incarceration. … If made final, this proposal will lead to another decade of vital policy decisions based on a census that counts incarcerated people in the wrong place.”

The letter, signed by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, the NALEO Education Fund, and 36 other groups, was sent to the Census Bureau in response to a formal comment period on the proposal that ended on Sept. 1.

In the letter, the groups list several concerns with the proposal, including that “despite significant changes in the location and composition of the incarcerated population, especially over the last several decades, the policy governing the enumeration of incarcerated persons has not similarly evolved to reflect these consequential shifts in the relationship between the location of incarcerated persons on Census Day and their ‘usual residence.’”

“Failure to count incarcerated persons at their home address preserves an unacceptably discriminatory census result that deprives underserved urban neighborhoods of fair representation, while shifting political power to communities that do not represent the interests of incarcerated persons or their families, ” the letter states. Because of this, “predominantly African-American and Latino communities will continue to be hit especially hard by an outdated policy that renders so many of their young men invisible for all statistical purposes.”

The letter further states, “The Census Bureau’s decision to maintain the status quo ignores overwhelming public comments in favor of an updated policy that recognizes the temporal nature of most incarcerations. Moreover, the proposed method of counting the incarcerated population is inconsistent with how the Census Bureau counts other groups that eat and sleep in a location that is not their usual residence. Finally, the policy that the Census Bureau is proposing to retain will result in census counts that skew the distribution of political representation and our very understanding of the composition and well-being of communities across America, for an entire decade following the census.”

The groups also note the glaring, and yet unexplained, inconsistency of continuing this practice after the Bureau changed its policy to begin counting deployed military service members at their home addresses instead of their military bases.

These concerns were shared by an overwhelming majority of commenters in previous years and in letters sent this week by the past two former directors of the Census Bureau and 35 foundations.

“In what world is prison considered someone’s usual residence?” asked Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Miscounting people who are incarcerated robs them of their identities, their personhood, and their right to proper representation in our democracy. At 1.5 million, there are more people in prison than there are in each of ten states. Miscounting the largest prison population in human history is a statistical failure, a moral failure, and a failure of our democracy.”

Read the letter in full at civilrights.org/advocacy/letters/2016/comments-on.html.

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