The U.S. Census Bureau just released guidelines for the 2020 census that harm people of color and exacerbate the suffering of the communities most devastated by America’s broken criminal justice system.1
Despite massive public opposition, the Census Bureau wants to continue its widely discredited practice of “prison-based gerrymandering.” Prison-based gerrymandering counts incarcerated people as “residents” of the place they happen to be on Census Day. That means instead of being counted as residents of their home communities, they are counted as residents of the community where they are imprisoned.
Treating incarcerated people as “residents” of prisons is outdated, inaccurate, and unfair. When government officials use census data with these padded population numbers, they’re shifting representation – and therefore shifting political influence – from home communities to prison communities. This primarily harms communities of color, particularly AfricanAmerican and Latinx communities that bear the brunt of disproportionate incarceration rates and a broken criminal justice system.2,3
The Census Bureau is accepting public comments on its guidelines until September 1. Can you submit a public comment now to help bring an end to its antiquated, inaccurate, and unfair method of counting incarcerated people?
Tell the Census Bureau to end prison-based gerrymandering now.
The Census Bureau defines “usual residence” as the place where a person “eats and sleeps most of the time,”4 but fails to follow that rule when counting incarcerated people. Students in boarding schools, or people who spend months of the year in second vacation homes, are allowed to be counted at their permanent address. But the Census Bureau continues to carve out an unexplained exception for incarcerated people in order to count them in the wrong place. And they are not just counting people spending long terms in prison. Many prison stays are for less than a year and many people who are incarcerated have not even been found guilty.
Prison-based gerrymandering creates districts with “phantom” constituents – where inmates, many of whom have been stripped of their right to vote – make up the bulk of the population. This distorts how legislative districts are drawn and violates the fundamental principle of one person, one vote. If the Bureau continues this practice, 2 million people will be counted in the wrong place in 2020, ensuring an inaccurate census and another decade of prison gerrymandering.5
Continuing to count incarcerated people in the wrong place is not only misguided, it ignores overwhelming calls for change. Last year, when the Census Bureau solicited public comments on how to implement residence guidelines for the 2020 census, the majority of comments were about how incarcerated people are counted, and more than 95 percent of those expressed clear opposition to prison-based gerrymandering. But the recently released draft guidelines for 2020 keep it in effect. The Census Bureau’s failure to take those public comments from groups like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ACLU into account is especially disappointing given that the Bureau is proposing different rules for other people who are elsewhere on Census Day: military deployed overseas and boarding school students, for example, are counted as residents of their homes.
In the face of the Census Bureau’s inaccurate practice, some states – including California, Delaware, Maryland and New York – have adopted legislation to undo its effect. But it shouldn’t be left up to states to fix this problem. That’s why we’re working with our friends at Prison Policy Initiative and NAACP LDF to urge the Census Bureau to do the right thing.
The Census Bureau accepts comments on its proposed 2020 census guidelines through September 1.
Now is the time to speak up and pressure the bureau into making a change.
Thank you for taking action.
- The Census Bureau, “Proposed 2020 Census Residence Criteria and Residence Situations,” Federal Register, June 30, 2016.
- Tanisha Love Ramirez and Zeba Blay, “Why People Are Using The Term ‘Latinx’, Huffington Post, July 5, 2016.
- The Editorial Board, “The Wrong Way To Count Prisoners,” The New York Times, July 16, 2016.
- “Census Bureau proposes to count incarcerated people in the wrong place once again in 2020 Census, continues to distort democracy,” Prison Policy Institute, DEMOS, June 30, 2016.