In an op-ed in the New York Times, Anthony Thompson writes about imbalances created by counting prison inmates as "usual residents"

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Anthony Thompson, Professor of Clinical Law, writes about the imbalances created by the Census Bureau's "usual residence" rule, which counts prison inmates as residents of the locations where they are incarcerated. Thompson notes that the rule creates political districts that would otherwise not exist by adding incarcerated "residents" to underpopulated districts that would probably have to be redrawn.

"The residence rule creates two fundamental issues," Thompson writes. "First, inmates in nearly all states aren't allowed to vote, yet their presence affects electoral representation in places where they do not live permanently. Second, a disproportionate number of state prison inmates are from urban areas. Most state prisons, however, are in rural areas. As a result, resources and electoral authority are transferred from inner cities to rural jurisdictions. The effects are plain to see. Cities lose out on funds that could be used both for crime prevention and prisoner rehabilitation; rural areas do their best to thwart reform because they don't want to the benefits that prisons confer on them."

Thompson suggests that the Obama administration propose a change to the residence rule: Inmates returning to their home communities before the next census period--those serving a sentence of 10 years or less--should be counted in their home communities. Those serving more than 10 years should be counted where they are incarcerated.

"The proposal is not perfect, but it would begin to rectify the political imbalance inherent in the residence rule--an imbalance that distorts both the census and basic democratic principles," Thompson writes.

Posted on August 6, 2009