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Inmates will count in census

Prison, jail detainees to be tallied as Hall residents

POSTED: March 14, 2010 10:51 p.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Hall County Correctional Institute Officer Cpl. Mark Vanderwaag walks past a row of inmates fresh off work detail Friday afternoon at the Barber Road facility. Prisoners will be counted as a person living in the county they are being held according to the U.S. census.

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Of the 240 inmates at the Hall County Correctional Institution on Barber Road, two-thirds are men on the verge of freedom.

Some are within weeks or days of their release back into society. All call home somewhere besides Hall County. But come April 1, if they are still behind bars, that’s where the U.S. Census Bureau will count them as residents.

Critics of the method used by the Census Bureau to count prison and jail inmates say in extreme cases, it can distort growth and give political power to what would otherwise by sparsely-populated areas.

In Hall County, a county of more than 180,000 where there are about 1,100 people behind bars who would otherwise call somewhere else home, it at the least robs their home communities of demographic accuracy, advocates say.

“It matters because we’ve got a group that’s very demographically unique that’s from a bunch of concentrated areas,” said Peter Wagner, a researcher with Prisoners of the Census, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group.

Wagner notes that the incarceration rate for African-American men is disproportionately high. In Georgia, blacks make up 30 percent of the state population but 62 percent of the prison population. There are no figures on the percentage of blacks in county jails, which house about 40,000 people each month.

“You’ve got African-American men being counted in the wrong place,” Wagner said. “So you’ve got systematically biased data.”

At the North Georgia Detention Center, the 500 people awaiting deportation are almost all Hispanic, but only a small percentage were picked up in Hall County. They will count as Hall County residents.

At the 1,026-bed Hall County jail, about 400 inmates are boarded in from other counties, including Fulton and Forsyth counties.

Nate Persily, a Professor of Law and Political Science at Columbia University, said the Census Bureau defines “usual residence” as where the person lives or sleeps most of the time.

“The usual residence rule is not just a problem with respect to prisons, but all kinds of transient populations, such as university populations,” Persily said. “The census has always had to grapple with this problem — they want to create a rule that’s easily adminsterable across many different contexts.”

In a report, the U.S. Census Bureau responded by saying it would be costly, as much as $250 million, to process the address information of all prisoners in federal, state and local correctional facilities.

The bureau also questioned the lawfulness of counting people for political apportionment purposes if it counted prisoners at an address other than where they are confined.

“Our study raises concerns that this change would result in decreased accuracy for a possibly large proportion of millions of individuals confined on census day,” the census said in the report.

Wagner said one problem not posed by prisoner counts is federal funding.

“There are either block grants to states or they are calculated in some way that prisoners are directly or indirectly excluded from them,” Wagner said.

America has seen skyrocketing incarceration rates, with about 2 million people now behind bars, including as many as 100,000 in Georgia.

“If there weren’t so many people in prisons, it wouldn’t be a big deal,” Wagner said.

Avocates with Prisoners of the Census and other groups know it’s too late to change the system this time around. But they’re using publicity surrounding the census to draw attention, with hopes change will come in 10 years.

“This is a problem that’s on the margins,” Wagner said. “It’s fixable.”



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