Black leaders urge census to change how it counts inmates

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 2009

A coalition of African American leaders concerned about minorities being undercounted in the 2010 Census called Wednesday for inmates at federal and state prisons to be tallied in their home communities instead of the towns where they are incarcerated.

Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League and chairman of a census advisory committee, said the practice now shortchanges communities in money and democratic representation. Census statistics are used to calculate the allocation of more than $478 billion in federal funds and to draw political boundaries.

Noting that about 1.2 million of the nation's 40 million African Americans are in prison, Morial said, "What we have in the prison population issue is a built-in undercount."

Morial and about a dozen other black leaders brought up the prison count during a meeting with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to discuss how to make the census more accurate, a perennial problem. In 2000, about 1.3 million people were overcounted, mostly because of duplicate counts of whites with multiple homes. In contrast, about 4.5 million people, mostly black and Hispanic, were not counted.

"Every census undercounts African Americans and overcounts whites," said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson of the Rainbow/Push Coalition, who attended the meeting. "While it's getting better, it's not a one-to-one ratio."

The issue has particular resonance in the District. Almost all felons in the District serve their time in federal prisons around the country, not in a city lockup. At any given time, about 6,000 D.C. residents are in prison.

Courts have upheld the decennial census method of counting residents where they live on April 1. College students, for instance, are counted in their dorms rather than in their parents' homes. Changing that practice would require a law in Congress or a court ruling, and both venues will be pursued, said the Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network and a participant in the meeting.

In 2006, the Census Bureau gave Congress a report outlining problems that would arise if prisoners were to be counted in their home communities. For example, would a prisoner be counted as a resident of the census tract he lived in years before even though someone else lives in that house now? Or would he be counted in the community where he plans to live upon release?

Locke, whose department houses the Census Bureau, did not directly address the prison issue after the meeting. Instead, he referred to other issues that were discussed, including outreach efforts encouraging people to fill out their census forms and paid ads to run in minority-owned publications.

"African Americans and other minority communities have been consistently undercounted in past censuses, so we're grateful to the respected leaders we met with for their commitment in achieving an accurate count," Locke said in a written statement.

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