Thursday, April 15, 2010

Counting inmates in census skews legislative, county district drawing

Maryland this week took the remarkable step of requiring that inmates be counted at their home addresses instead of the county in which they're imprisoned for purposes of legislative redistricting after the 2010 census. Good for them.

Several Texas' legislative districts would look significantly different if prisoners were counted in the census as being from their home county instead of the one in which they're incarcerated. The problem most negatively impacts Houston, Dallas, and black communities, all of which disproportionately send inmates to TDCJ. According to Peter Wagner and Rose Heyer at Prisoners of the Census: "Harris County is 16.3% of the Texas population, but it supplies 21.5% of the state's prisoners. ... Dallas County is only 10.6% of the Texas population, but it supplies 15.4% of the state's prisoners. ...While Blacks are 11.5% of the Texas population, more than a third of the incarcerated people in the state are Black."

These inmates artificially prop up the population of rural counties. Again, from Prisoners of the Census:
In our national research, we found 21 counties where at least 21% of the population reported in the Census was incarcerated. Ten of these counties were in Texas. A full third of tiny Concho County (population 3,966) is behind bars, but the numerous large prisons near Huntsville can even put populous counties like Walker County on the list.
The ten Texas counties with 21% or more of their population incarcerated were:
Concho: 33%
Mitchell: 26%
Anderson: 25%
Hartley: 24%
Jones: 23%
Walker: 23%
Childress: 22%
Karnes: 22%
Bee: 22%
Madison: 21%
State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst's district has 11.97% prisoners, which according to Wagner is:
a higher figure than in any other state legislative district yet discovered in the United States. Prisoners can't vote in Texas, and on their release they will be returning to their home communities, but their presence at the prison town in the Census dilutes the votes of their family members back home. Says Wagner: "Every group of 88 residents in District 13 gets as much of a say over state affairs as 100 people in Houston or Dallas. The Supreme Court's 'One Person One Vote' rule was supposed to eliminate such large difference in voting power."
State Rep. Byron Cook's district was close behind at 11.73% prisoners. The state Senator with the highest prisoner to voter ratio was Democrat Judith Zaffirini in South Texas, 2.73% of whose district is incarcerated. One would expect this demographic shift to benefit Republicans, but looking at the district by district breakdowns, it often cuts both ways: There are quite a few Democratic districts like Zaffirini's that also are pumped up with prisoner numbers. Here are tables from 2007 with the number of prisoners in state House districts and state Senate districts.

Some of these counties want to count prisoners as residents when its beneficial to them but ignore them when it's not:
Bee, Brazos, Concho, Dawson, Grimes, Madison and Wood Counties excluded the prison populations when drawing County Commissioner districts, thereby avoiding giving extra representation to the district that contain the prisons at the expense of all other county districts. In Concho County, removing the prison population avoided drawing a district that was entirely incarcerated prisoners.
That's a remarkable level of cognitive dissonance, excluding prisoners for purposes of county and local elections, but benefiting from their presence when drawing legislative districts.

Redistricting is so nasty and partisan here I'd be amazed if an even-handed approach like this could be adopted next year. It's hard to see how the issue could be confronted during a redistricting session without an ugly meltdown, though I'd welcome being proven wrong. But the subject also comes up for commissioners court elections in counties with out of town prisoners. For those interested in the impact of prison populations on district drawing in your own county, see this "Democracy Toolkit" prepared by Prisoners of the Census to calculate the effects of prisoners on local district drawing.


Anonymous said...

"That's a remarkable level of cognitive dissonance, excluding prisoners for purposes of county and local elections, but benefiting from their presence when drawing legislative districts."

I will tell you what's remarkable. The census did not mail the forms to the residents of my town who receive their mail at post office box. Instead, the forms were mailed to city hall for the residents to pick up. The problem you ask; no one told any of the residents about it.

Don't believe me. Call city hall @903-656-2311.

Hook Em Horns said...

Walker Counties number seems a little low. Is there anything besides prisons in Walker County. It would be interesting to know just how much of Walker County the State of Texas owns.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"interesting to know just how much of Walker County the State of Texas owns"

It's kind of a huge document, so be forewarned, but here's a list/evaluation of all real property (pdf) owned by TDCJ, TYC, DPS, and a couple of smaller agencies.