Census decision could shift more power to cities

The Obama administration has made a subtle but important change in the timing of Census Bureau reports involving prisoners, one long sought by big cities that farm out their prisoners to the hinterlands.  The Census will now report prison counts based on home residency of each prisoner back to states before redistricting decisions are made.  The change could allow cities to fight in redistricting efforts to shift power to large urban areas in Congressional redistricting — a move that would tend to help Democrats gain more seats in Congress:

Prisoners will soon be bigger players in those high-stakes redistricting fights, even if unwittingly, thanks to a change in federal policy governing how they’re to be counted in the 2010 census.

Prison populations have historically been included in national headcounts, but now Census officials will make data on inmate populations available to states earlier than in the past.

This change will allow states to decide whether to count inmates for purposes of redistricting. If a state makes that choice, it would have to decide where inmates should be considered residents — in rural towns, where prisons are often built, or in cities, where many prisoners come from.

Until now, the bureau provided breakdowns on group quarters, like prisons, only after states had finished their redistricting. That resulted in districts with prisons getting extra representation in their legislatures, despite laws in some states that say a prison cell is not a residence.

Several years ago, the New York Times editorial board adopted this as a hobby horse in a fact-challenged crusade to count felons in their home cities.  Until now, no one has heard much about the issue since, but the motives here are obvious.  Most large cities do not maintain prisons in their jurisdictions, but farm prisoners out to rural areas.  The move allows cities to shed the burden of costs and security, as well as use valuable real estate for tax-generating purposes, while delivering a mixed bag of revenue opportunities and security risks for the local residents.

The cities basically want to eat their cake and have it, too.  They want credit for the prison population without actually having to house and maintain the prisoners.  The Times cast the status quo ante as some sort of Republican plot to steal representation (and federal government largesse) from urban areas, with one of its columnists at the time claiming that mandatory sentencing and three-strikes laws were part of a Republican conspiracy to steal both from Democrats in urban areas.

The solution to this was obvious: New York City could have built its own prison and housed its own reprobates, as could Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Denver, and so on.  (Major cities maintain jails for processing criminal defendants and short sentences, but not usually prisons for longer-term convicts.)  As it is, though, the cities routinely transfer the costs and burdens of prisoners outside of their jurisdictions.  There is no justification for granting them credit for the prisoners as residents of the cities, because quite literally, they aren’t residing there while they’re in prison.  States can pass all the laws they want, but it doesn’t change the laws of physics: a prisoner locked up for several years in one place cannot be said to be residing simultaneously miles away.

The Census Bureau now wants to play along with the cities to make it easier for them to demand redistricting that favors them next year, based on phantom populations that obviously are nowhere near where the cities claim.  That will bear watching in each state as the Census Bureau reports its data and the states start working on drawing new maps for Congressional districts.