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Census issue: when, where — and for what purpose — to count inmates

Once populations are calculated in 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau is leaving it up to states to decide for the first time whether to count convicts in redrawing legislative districts in 2011.


Even though imprisoned felons aren’t allowed to vote, politicians typically are eager to count them among the citizenry — especially at census time, when a state’s updated population determines how many congressional districts it will be allowed.

Convicts also are counted when state legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years following the census report. And they are counted when a town needs X number of residents to qualify for certain types of government funding.

But whether they should be counted in their prison cell or at their last home address has become an issue for the 2010 census.

Given that Minnesota is at risk of losing one of its eight congressional districts because of a population decline, rest assured that every incarcerated felon will be counted from Rochester to Sandstone. Minnesota’s state and federal prisons are home to 13,707 inmates this week, 9,353 of them in state institutions, according to weekly federal prison reports and the latest available Minnesota Department of Corrections adult inmate profile. [PDF]

The tally that will count, however, is who’s incarcerated on April 1 — the official “census day.”

For legislative districts, states will decide
Once total state populations are calculated in this census, the U.S. Census Bureau is leaving it up to individual states to decide for the first time whether to count convicts in redrawing their legislative districts in 2011.

State Sen. Linda Higgins, chair of the Finance Committee’s Public Safety Budget Division, said Wednesday that she plans to introduce a bill that will seek to exclude the prison population during the legislative redistricting process.

Why count prisoners some of the time but not all of the time?

State Sen. Linda Higgins
State Sen. Linda Higgins

“Part of the reason we do a census every 10 years is for the allocation, particularly for federal funds, and it’s based on the population,” said Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis. “There are some funds that go to various counties based on the percentage of low-income people, or the percentage of kids, or the percentage of people of color. We know there’s a higher percentage of people of color in prisons in Minnesota than in the general Minnesota population. So, if you use those statistics from correctional institutions, then that legislative district gets a skewed amount of money for resources that are supposed to go to low-income communities and people of color.”

Committee chair seems skeptical
Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, is chair of the State and Local Government Operations and Oversight Committee, which would consider Higgins’ bill if it’s introduced. Rest isn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of counting prisoners some of the time but not all of the time.  

“It sounds a little like having your cake and eating it, too,” she said. “I’d be very interested in what consistent, reliable argument could be made to count them (prisoners) for reapportionment and how many Congress members you get, but then not count them in the state districts.”

State Sen. Ann Rust
State Sen. Ann Rust

For some years, national advocates for prisoners have been pushing Congress to persuade the Census Bureau to count prisoners at their last known home address before their incarceration. Their premise is that many inmates come from urban areas and they should be counted where they receive the most support services and their concerns are best represented.

Instead, advocates say, their analyses show that many prisoners are housed in outstate and rural facilities and their populations can end up gerrymandering a district in favor of local and political interests. They say that prisoners either should be counted in their hometowns or not at all.

Compromise reached
The Census Bureau was unable to switch gears quickly enough for the 2010 census to track prisoners to their previous home locations, said Dennis Johnson, the regional census director for Minnesota, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

So, a compromise was reached to supply to states an “exact geographic area where prisons are located” much earlier in the process, Johnson said. Then it’s up to the states to decide how to draw the lines.

“Many local communities that have a significant number of people from their community who happen to be in prison feel they’re not being represented in the community that supports them,” he said. “Second, there’s concern that the individuals we’re talking about are not eligible to vote. They’re being counted as far as political representation but they have no actual voice because of their inability to vote.”

A Corrections Department data run [PDF] requested by MinnPost shows that Hennepin and Ramsey counties, comprising the state’s largest urban population, sentenced the biggest proportions of prisoners currently in state institutions. Based on last July’s population of 9,353 state prisoners, Hennepin County sentenced 25.4 percent and Ramsey County sentenced 15.7 percent of the population. Next in line were these counties: Dakota (4.8 percent), Anoka (3.9 percent), St. Louis (3.9 percent) and Olmsted (3.8 percent.)

If Higgins introduces her bill, Minnesota will be among a handful of states including Wisconsin that are considering legislation to toss out the prison counts during next year’s redistricting process.

For some, an interim solution
“Some states consider removing the prison population from redistricting data as an interim solution until the census starts counting incarcerated people at home,” said Aleks Kajstura, legal director of the Northampton, Mass.-based Prison Policy Initiative, which is running a “Prisoner of the Census” campaign. “Adjusting the data in this way will prevent communities with large prisons from getting extra influence to the detriment of every other district in the state.”

The Prison Policy Initiative soon is expected to release an analysis of Minnesota districts and prison populations. Its analysis of New York’s prison population and redistricting concerns recently was reported in the New York Times.

“We’re focusing on Minnesota for three reasons,” Kajstura said in an email. “First, the Minnesota Constitution says that incarceration does not change a residence. Second, Minnesota has such a strong dedication to the principle of drawing equal districts, that only three other states have House districts that are more equal in population. Third, even though Minnesota has fewer people in prison than most states, there are still enough people being counted in the wrong place to violate the principles of democracy.”

And there’s the issue of racial inequities, as Sen. Higgins mentioned.

According to a Council on Crime and Justice report [PDF] based on 1999 data, African Americans represented just 3.5 percent of Minnesota’s population but 35 percent of adult males in prison.

Numbers remain disproportionate
The Corrections Department’s 2009 adult inmate profile showed that not much has changed in 10 years. African Americans currently constitute 35.4 percent of prisoners in state institutions. Altogether, people of color represent 45.6 percent of the prison population vs. an estimated 14 percent of the state’s total population.

The U of M Humphrey Institute’s Smart Politics blog prepared an analysis late last year that showed Minnesota’s prison population also had the second-largest increase in the nation between 2000 and 2008.

Sarah Walker
Sarah Walker

“There are so many people in prison today that it’s breaking our electoral system, punishing even people who have no involvement with the criminal justice system,” said Sarah Walker, a founder of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition and chief operating officer of 180 Degrees Inc. in Minneapolis. Both organizations, which work with former prisoners, are partners in the “Prisoner of the Census” effort.

The nonpartisan League of Women Voters-Minnesota also is taking an active role.

“Our interest in this issue is that counting prisoners where they are results in a simultaneous inflation and dilution issue,” said Keesha Gaskins, executive director of the league.

Perhaps you’re scratching your head at this point in the story. Fortunately, Gaskins has a solid explanation of why inflation and dilution are a problem.

Imagine a district with a population of 100 people and 50 of them are prisoners, she says. If prisoners are counted in such a district, the “political influence” of people living outside the prison is “inflated.” At the same time, such a makeup means 50 people, i.e., the prisoners, in that district aren’t voting and participating in democracy. “Therefore you have 50 people on the outside who have control of an entire district, which means that for all the other people … their influence is diluted by comparison,” Gaskins explained.  

‘It’s about what’s fair’
“This is a democratic issue, with a small ‘d,’ ” she said. “This isn’t a huge partisan issue. It’s about what’s fair for citizens and what’s fair for prisoners.”

Still, there’s the question of what’s fair for the cities that provide, for example, police support to prisons in their towns, said state demographer Tom Gillaspy. “They could show they are providing some services and that the prison has some impact on the area,” he said. “These are all relative concepts that certainly would be subject to question.”

State Rep. Julie Bunn
State Rep. Julie Bunn

State Rep. Julie Bunn’s district includes the Stillwater and Oak Park Heights state prisons. “There’s certainly a lot of mutual aid” between the prisons and local police departments, said Bunn, DFL-Lake Elmo. (Just to add to the head-scratching, the Stillwater prison is in Bayport and the Oak Park Heights facility has a Stillwater address even though it’s technically in Oak Park Heights.)

The Prison Policy Initiative has found in other states that counting prisoners at their prisons tends to favor Republicans representing suburban, rural and outstate areas. Counting prisoners in their hometowns would skew toward Democrats.

In Minnesota, more of a mixed bag
But Minnesota’s legislative districts are more of a mixed bag. Just two state prisons, Shakopee and Lino Lakes, are in districts represented solely by Republican state legislators and members of Congress. Rush City and Moose Lake/Willow River are in solid DFL territory.

Four of Minnesota’s 10 state prisons are on the edges of the Twin Cities: Lino Lakes, Oak Park Heights, Shakopee and Stillwater. (Two of the 10 state prisons are juvenile detention facilities.)

So, which parts of the state could see the biggest impacts if prison populations were no longer counted for redistricting purposes? The 6th and 8th Congressional Districts include the largest state and federal prison populations. Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann’s 6th District includes 4,106 prisoners at four state prisons stretching from Bayport to St. Cloud. Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar’s 8th District, which sprawls across the northern part of the state, has 6,202 inmates at four state prisons and two federal facilities.

While legislators could decide to exclude prison populations during state redistricting, it is still unclear whether they’d be able to pluck prisoners from congressional districts. For now, Higgins said she is focusing her bill on state legislative districts.

“Reasonable minds can disagree as to whether or not states have the legal right to remove prisoners from congressional districts,” said Gaskins of the League of Women Voters. “Legislators could certainly try, but they most certainly would be subject to a court challenge,” most likely from the historically Republican 6th District, she said.

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Legislative districts have some leeway
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling requires that all congressional districts in a state must be as “nearly equal in population as practicable,” according to an Oct. 27 paper titled “How to Draw Redistricting Plans That Will Stand Up in Court,” [PDF] by state Senate Counsel Peter Wattson. Computer technology is such that 17 states were able to narrow that variation to zero or one person, Wattson notes.     

But Minnesota legislative districts have a little more leeway, meaning they are allowed a variation of plus-or-minus 5 percent from the average population in a district (which is the total population divided by the number of legislative districts). The largest district’s population shouldn’t be more than 10 percent greater than the smallest district’s, but there are exceptions for “legitimate state objectives” such as keeping a city whole.  

Bunn’s district would lose up to 6 percent of the population if the 1,900 inmates at Oak Park Heights and Stillwater were excluded. Her district could be a good example of how radically geographic boundaries could change under redistricting if prisoners are excluded, Gillaspy said.

Bunn, an economist, wonders if it could be a wash for the district’s total population. Other areas of her district have grown rapidly since the last census.

“The net effect most likely is that the population growth is much larger so we wouldn’t even notice the prisoner effect,” she said.

A ‘key breaking point’
Still, she worries about the financial impact of not counting prisoners in small towns like Bayport or other prison communities “on the edge” of 5,000 residents. That count, she said, is a “key breaking point” for qualifying for local government aid — or at least what’s left of it as Minnesota struggles with billion-dollar budget deficits.

Higgins acknowledges that local governments assist prisons in their backyards. “In Stillwater, two to three weeks ago, they shut down the prison and the county sheriffs and police forces were asked to help,” she said. “So yes, they have an occasional duty there. But is it more or less the problem that the city of St. Paul has because it has all these government buildings?”

She said she’s unsure of how much push-back she’ll receive from outstate districts about her proposal.

But one thing is predictable: Every 10 years, redistricting rears its head in the Legislature.    

“Members always get anxious any time you talk about this stuff, so there will be anxiety,” Gillaspy said.

Clarification: This story originally said the Oak Park Heights prison is in Stillwater. A Washington County spokeswoman says the facility technically is in Oak Park Heights even though its address is listed as being in Stillwater by the DOC. That’s because Oak Park Heights doesn’t have a post office, the county spokeswoman said. The story has been updated.
Casey Selix, a staff writer and news editor for, can be reached at cselix[at]minnpost[dot]com. Follow her on Twitter.