Wednesday was a difficult day for The American Independent News Network, which is the larger entity that operates The Iowa Independent. Our chief executive and founder announced two of our sister sites would close and their content would be moved to The American Independent.
Census prison policy could impact rural areas
Although inmates have historically been included in population counts for the area in which the prison is located, census officials have changed the federal policy governing how they are to be counted in 2010. The new policy allows states to decide whether inmates should be considered residents of the predominantly rural towns that house the prison or of their location of origin.
The policy change could result in significant political consequences nationally and at the state legislative level. If inmate populations are removed from predominantly rural areas, which trend Republican, and placed in their often urban origins, which trend Democratic, then redistricting maps drawn with those new proportions could benefit Democratic candidates.
For local officials, though, the political ramifications take a back seat to potential economic impacts on smaller towns and rural counties that receive funding based on census figures.
The good news for Iowa communities is that, due to timeline constraints mandated in the state code for redistricting, it is unlikely that the new option offered by the Census Bureau will impact Iowa’s upcoming process. Ten years from now, however, it could become a federal mandate that state’s count prison populations differently.
Census officials are currently tasked by law with providing block-level basic population data to the states by April 1, 2011. Although census officials have been gathering detailed counts of prison populations, that is typically secondary data that is not released to states until summer. Advocacy groups are pushing census officials to have that secondary data to the states by May 2011, but that would still likely be too late for inclusion in Iowa redistricting.
“We really don’t have a great deal of time to get that first [redistricting] plan to the legislature,” said Ed Cook, senior legal counsel for the Legislative Services Agency. “We are also mandated to follow the statutes regarding redistricting, which allow only for use of the official data — and, when that is released, our timeline begins.”
The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization in Massachusetts, is one group that has been leading the charge for a change in “prison-based gerrymandering,” and has often pointed to Anamosa, Iowa, as one of the nation’s most severe trouble spots.
At one time the city of Anamosa was divided into four wards, and the boundaries for those wards were drawn so that each would include roughly the same population. Ward 2 was home to Anamosa State Penitentiary, which houses roughly 1,300 inmates. Because prisoners are not voting members of a community, Anamosa’s Ward 2 actually contained roughly 60 voting members of the community.
“The issue in Anamosa really drew attention when a long-time member of the council decided to retire, and the man who replaced him was elected from that ward by only two write-in votes,” said Pat Callahan, Anamosa city administrator, describing a situation that was highlighted in 2008 by The New York Times.
Callahan suggested that to remedy the situation, the community could place a question on an upcoming ballot to elect all members of the city council at-large. A local woman volunteered to gather the necessary signatures, and the voters overwhelmingly approved the change.
While those who advocate for a change in the way the census counts prison inmates often point to a non-voting block of individuals providing undue influence for rural areas, Callahan said the perceived inequities aren’t the only issues tied to a community’s census count.
“We have one significant stream of funding — the Road Use Tax Fund — that is directly tied to the population in our community,” he said, noting that the monies from that stream are used for roads, storm sewers, snow removal and other direct road upkeep. “If we were to lose that money because the prisoners were no longer part of our population, that would be about $100,000 taken from our road budget. That would be devastating.”
Jones County Auditor Janine Sulzner agrees that such losses based on decreased population would be difficult, and perhaps even unfair to rural communities who must still maintain services around the large facilities.
“There isn’t really another avenue in place that could be used to recoup those funds,” she said. “Prisons and other facilities of that nature, which often take up a great deal of real estate within a community, don’t pay property taxes.”
According to Callahan, if such a change was made, he would likely consider ways to charge the local prison some sort of a use fee.
“I don’t think that I could actually accomplish that,” he admitted, “but I do think it would be something that I’d at least look into as a possibility.”
The National Research Council, which was commissioned by the Census Bureau in 2007 to study the issue, acknowledged that the historic process of counting inmates distorted the political process, but also stated that the existing system would be difficult to change. Where should the census place an inmate serving a life sentence, for instance? What would constitute an inmate’s home — his/her place of birth, location of office, prosecuting district, last known address?
“While it is not exactly the same, there are also some who advocate the counting of others in community residence settings as part of their home residence — for instance, students in college dormitories,” Cook said. “As it stands now, at least in Iowa, there are a broad range of questions that would need to be answered legislatively before the process could be changed.”
Legislation regarding the counting of inmates, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, has been recently introduced in Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and has been debated in numerous other state legislatures previously. Federal legislation, introduced by U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, is also pending.