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The Urgent Need for Reform of Louisiana’s Youth Justice

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On July 19, 2022, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced his decision to transfer incarcerated young people to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola – an adult prison with a long history of human rights abuses. The decision was emblematic of a state that consistently sees young Black people as criminals to be captured and controlled rather than healed and rehabilitated.

In this report, Only Young Once: The Urgent Need for Reform of Louisiana’s Youth Justice System, we explore how the perceptions of Black youth contribute to an overreliance on punitive measures – in both Louisiana’s school and juvenile justice systems – leading to stark racial disparities. The report also details the significant physical and psychological harm posed to incarcerated youth, while Louisiana taxpayers pay the cost for a fiscally wasteful approach to youth crime.

Only Young Once also spells out opportunities for reforms that would be not only more productive for the well-being of children but more cost-effective for taxpayers.

“The default for any child in the juvenile system should be humanization, not criminalization,” says Delvin Davis, SPLC senior policy analyst and the report’s primary author. “Incarcerating kids in Angola not only chooses the latter but forces Black children into the most extreme version of criminalization Louisiana has to offer. We hope this report will fuel a dialogue around reform that is necessary to change children’s lives.”

The SPLC encourages all readers to use Only Young Once as a resource to catalyze change for youth in Louisiana.

Read the report here. Click on image to view PDF.

 

Illustration at top by David Cooper

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Deadly Private Prisons Rake in Cash as Biden Defies Voters

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LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 14: Razor wire is seen on the Metropolitan Detention Center prison as mass arrests by federal immigration authorities, as ordered by the Trump administration, were supposed to begin in major cities across the nation on July 14, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was expected to be target hundreds of Angelenos for deportation, plus family members and others they encounter and suspect of being undocumented. The city of Los Angeles declared itself a sanctuary city to reflect its policy since the 1970s of not allowing police to help immigration officials because the city wants its immigrant populations to not be afraid to cooperate with police or call in crimes and emergencies. Elected officials and activists have continued to lash out against the raids.   (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Voters on both sides of the aisle are no stranger to broken campaign promises. With Democratic leaders, these broken promises always feel a little more egregious. During his 2020 campaign run, President Biden pledged to end for-profit immigration detention centers. However, two years into his term, it looks like there has been little to no progress.

For-profit detention centers, explained

Much like for-profit prisons, for-profit immigration detention centers engage in shady practices. Advocacy groups and former detainees have reported horrors like sexual assault, unsanitary conditions, and deaths. People held in these centers range from those who recently crossed the border to those seeking asylum.

While people held in these facilities suffer, the companies behind them rake in millions of dollars. You might be familiar with ICE and the concept of detention centers, but you may not have heard of companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group, which own and operate most America’s prisons and detention centers. GEO Group saw its revenues increase by 40% to 1.05 billion dollars in 2022.

This money is likely not being used to better the conditions people are subject to in ICE detention centers. In 2022, two families filed a lawsuit against CoreCivic after their family members died in a Tennessee facility. The lawsuits allege that CoreCivic was “holding costs at bay by refusing to seek outside medical care for ailing inmates” and not paying attention to guards at the facility smuggling drugs.

With record numbers of deaths and sexual assaults in these facilities, Biden should be in a hurry to address concerns. However, he seems to have stepped back from his strong campaign language.

Biden’s shift in tone

A CoreCivic facility in Elizabeth, NJ is at the center of the debate on closing detention centers. The Biden administration has said that closing this facility would be “catastrophic.” The facility, which can house up to 300 people, is the last of four detention centers in the New Jersey area. The three previous centers closed in 2021, when New Jersey law AB 5207, which banned contracts, went into effect.

Advocates for keeping this particular center open say it is “critical,” as having to transport people out of New Jersey to a nearby center in Pennsylvania would be expensive. Activists onsite in New Jersey say they would like people in these detention centers to be returned to their families. Pending closure, it is likely they would just be transported to other facilities.

In a report by Reuters, three White House officials stated they “were concerned with backlash in counties that benefited economically from the detention centers.” While some of the most notorious centers have been shuttered, activists and advocacy groups say this isn’t what was promised.

People that voted for Biden know that executing on a promise and making the promise are different. It doesn’t change the feeling of betrayal for many who are working with or know people detained in these facilities.

(via Reuters, featured image: David McNew, Getty Images)

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COVID-19 amplified racial disparities in the US

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State prison populations over time

Time series data about states’ prison populations over time were collected manually through scraping Departments of Corrections websites, as well as direct requests to state officials through public record requests (for example, Freedom of Information Act requests and so on). For every state in our dataset, we sought the most temporally resolved data as possible. We collected population data at either weekly, monthly, quarterly or, for some states, yearly levels. The most common form of data we were able to collect is the number of people incarcerated at a given time in a given state, on a monthly timescale. In Supplementary Table 1, we link to the data source for every state in our dataset, and in Supplementary Section 1, we show how the prison population of every state has changed over time.

We compared the data collected here to data from other organizations that report statistics about the US prison population—the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Vera Institute for Justice44—and find high overlap between all three of the datasets. In Supplementary Section 3, we identify areas in which our data differ from those of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and we offer an explanation for why we are confident in accuracy of our approach (for example, in several cases, we received the data directly from the states’ Departments of Corrections, through public records requests).

For every state in this dataset, the total prison population includes both male and female incarcerated people (something that is not always the case in studies about the US carceral system, which so often focuses on male incarcerated people). In Alaska, New Mexico, Vermont and California, “Transgender”, “Other” or “Non-Binary” are also listed as gender categories, although this practice is not widely adopted in reporting statistics about the incarcerated population. In 27 states, incarcerated race statistics are separated by “male”, “female” and “total”, and further characterizing the interaction between race and sex in biases in admissions and releases during the COVID-19 pandemic remains future work.

State policy data

Court closures and reduced admissions

Qualitative data on the closure and reopening of all 50 state court systems were collected primarily through the administrative orders and/or press releases of each state system’s Supreme or Superior Court or chief judicial officer as well as through local news coverage. Most states suspended all in-person proceedings with the exception of limited emergency matters between 12 March and 20 March 2020. Several states that adopted policies early in this period issued increasingly strict guidance as the pandemic worsened. New Jersey, for example, suspended new trials on 12 March and issued a 2-week suspension on municipal court proceedings on 14 March before finally suspending all proceedings (with emergency exceptions) on 15 March. In addition to closing judicial buildings and suspending proceedings, most court closures also extended statute of limitations and filing deadlines owing to pandemic disruption. A handful of states, Pennsylvania and Texas among them, permitted or encouraged courts to begin conducting remote proceedings in their initial closure orders, although the adoption of remote proceedings was not widespread in this initial lockdown stage.

Court reopening policies were more heterogeneous than the initial closures, although trials remained suspended in most states through at least early summer 2020 (and in most cases substantially later). The earliest such policies appeared at the beginning of April 2020, with most aimed at giving regional and local judges discretion to begin hearing proceedings remotely (for example, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Florida and Iowa, among others). A substantially larger group of states adopted reopening guidelines between late April and mid May, many of which allowed essential judicial staff to return to offices following new public health guidance while also maintaining remote proceedings and expanding the number of non-trial proceedings that courts could conduct remotely. Further reopenings and the resumption of limited in-person proceedings took place in many states throughout June, July and August 2020, although trial proceedings remained suspended. Notably, several states, especially those that adopted phased reopening plans, restricted in-person proceedings and further delayed trial resumption with the autumn–winter 2020–2021 COVID-19 surge. In many states, most administrative orders restricting court operations have at the time of publishing been rescinded, although others, California notably among them, still retain certain accommodations including the option for remote proceedings.

Release policy data

Data on COVID-19 release policies, when they existed, were collected from states’ individual corrections and prison bureau systems, governors’ executive orders and local news coverage. Fifteen states did not adopt any official release policy, although our data nevertheless show that there were still reductions in the overall prison population during the pandemic in all of these states. The remaining 35 states adopted policies with varying degrees of specificity and effectiveness, although many overlapped in their broadest contours, allowing consideration for early release to be granted to incarcerated people at increased public health risk (either due to age or underlying health condition) and for those nearing parole and/or the end of their prison sentences.

Almost all states with such policies did, however, adopt a restriction preventing the release of those incarcerated for violent crimes or sex offences. North Dakota was an outlier in this regard. Of the 120 people the state initially released from prison in March 2020, 14 were serving time for violent crime convictions and 11 were convicted of sex offences. New York’s release policy was notably more restrictive (on paper at least) than that of many other states—only those incarcerated for “non-criminal technical parole violations” were eligible for COVID release. As an example of one state’s release policy, we include below an excerpt from the Virginia Department of Corrections’ policy on releases45, from 24 April 2020.

“The Director of the Department of Corrections is authorized to consider early release for individuals with less than one year left to serve while the COVID-19 emergency declaration is in effect. Offenders convicted of a Class 1 felony or a sexually violent offense are not eligible for consideration. The exact number of individuals eligible for early release consideration will change depending on the length of the emergency declaration order. The [Department of Corrections] will identify those that are eligible for consideration using the procedures it has developed to ensure public safety and will notify offenders who are to be released under the early release plan. A diagnosis of COVID-19 is not a release factor.

The following Early Release Criteria will be utilized in considering an incarcerated person for early release pursuant to legislation:

  • Release Date: The inmate’s Good Time Release Date must be calculated and verified in order for the incarcerated to be considered.

  • Inmate Medical Condition: The inmate’s medical condition will be considered.

  • Offense History: By legislative mandate, early release does not apply to inmates convicted of a Class 1 felony or a sexually violent offense. Consideration for early release will be based on the seriousness of the current offense, in descending order as follows: Non-violent Offense, Felony Weapons Offenses, Involuntary Manslaughter, Voluntary Manslaughter, Robbery, Felony Assault, Abduction, Murder, Sex Offense.

  • Viable Home Plan: The incarcerated person must have a documented approved home plan to be considered.

  • Good Time Earning Level: The inmate’s current good time earning level must be I or II to be considered.

  • No Active Detainers: Inmates must have no active detainer to be considered.

  • No Sexually Violent Predator Predicate Offenses: Inmates convicted of one or more sexually violent offenses established in §37.2-903 of the Code of Virginia are not eligible pursuant to legislation.

  • Recidivism Risk: Inmates must have a risk of recidivism of medium (5-7) or low (1-4), as identified by the validated COMPAS instrument, to be considered.”

Note especially the inclusion of the COMPAS risk assessment tool, which is used in court systems across the USA as a way of quantifying an offender’s likelihood of reoffending (recidivism). Over the past several years, we have seen a growing body of scholarly work devoted to identifying problematic and harmful racial and economic biases that arise when algorithmic risk assessment tools are used in practice46,47,48,49,50,51. COMPAS, in particular, has been the subject of a number of studies that take a critical look at the effectiveness—and ethics—of these risk assessment tools in the justice system47,52; in one study, COMPAS was found to predict recidivism 61% of the time, but at the same time, Black people were almost twice as likely to be labelled as high risk for reoffending but not actually reoffend52.

Further research is needed to quantify demographic patterns in the incarcerated individuals who were released across different states, and because there was such high heterogeneity in different states’ policies, it remains an open question whether we will see the same broad, systematic racial differences among the people who were released. However, as has been the case throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the heterogeneity of policy responses across localities has typically had detrimental effects on our collective response to the pandemic53.

Study definitions of race and ethnicity

The data that we collected for the study used definitions of racial and ethnic groups that were determined by the agencies that collected the data. When the authors are discussing race and ethnicity in their interpretations, they are referring to the historical categories that have social, cultural and political consequences. We use the term Latino to describe people who are otherwise described as Hispanic in many settings. We have used the term non-white in select locations, as not all states had data disaggregated into the same set of categories. Thus, for some analyses, the term non-white directly describes the available data. For a list of the race categories reported by every state in our dataset, see Supplementary Table 7.

Recent advances in medical conventions have prompted discipline-wide introspection about the ways that race and ethnicity are discussed and used in research54. This is of critical importance to health equity and racial justice, and although in this work we rely on race statistics reported by states’ Departments of Correction, future work will critically examine the differences in approaches for reporting race and ethnicity statistics of incarcerated populations. Notably, it is important to know whether a state’s statistical reports use race categories that have been self-reported by the incarcerated person or whether it is interviewer-observed, which is often the case in administrative databases. These approaches are quite different and often result in inaccuracies in measurement of racial disparities55. Last, in Supplementary Section 3.3, we introduce a dataset that contains policies from 48 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons about whether race data of incarcerated individuals are obtained through self-report or visual-assignment from administrators or staff.

Reporting summary

Further information on research design is available in the Nature Portfolio Reporting Summary linked to this article.

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Protesters gathered in front of the Elizabeth Detention Center in Elizabeth on June 17 calling for the permanent shutdown of the facility that houses ICE detainees and for those detainees to be set free.

New Jersey cannot tolerate private prisons

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In June 2021, President Joe Biden said this: ”There should be no private prisons, period. None, period. That’s what they’re talking about — private detention centers. They should not exist. And we are working to close all of them.”

That same year, New Jersey passed a law banning private prisons and preventing the corporations that run them from signing any new leases to detain immigrants. The Elizabeth Detention Center, run by CoreCivic, is the last private detention center in New Jersey, and its lease expires on Aug. 31. Hoping to extend the lease, CoreCivic has filed suit against the state, claiming that the law is unconstitutional. The Biden administration, despite Joe’s expressed opposition to private detention centers, has inexplicably entered the lawsuit on the side of CoreCivic, claiming that closing the detention center would be “catastrophic.“

Protesters gathered in front of the Elizabeth Detention Center in Elizabeth on June 17 calling for the permanent shutdown of the facility that houses ICE detainees and for those detainees to be set free.

The concept of private detention centers is itself catastrophic. If we have a system that incentivizes us to lock people up, we will find reasons to lock people up. Let’s build a functioning immigration system that can evaluate asylum claims fairly without the deplorable approach of the EDC, where detainees sleep in a windowless, barracks-style warehouse room and have one bathroom per 40 detainees. It’s time to prioritize the legitimate welfare of asylum-seeking immigrants over the interests of profit-seeking corporations.

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The Criminalization of Poverty in Kentucky:

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How Economic Crises and Flawed Reforms Fueled an Incarceration Boom, by Vera Institute of Justice, August, 2023.
“By turning to criminal legal fines and fees to fund court and jail operations, jurisdictions across Kentucky create a vicious cycle that traps people in poverty and makes it more difficult for people to lead stable lives after incarceration.�

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In their own words: Incarcerated people, their

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In the first public comment period about the 2030 Census count, dozens of people called on the Bureau to end prison gerrymandering. We pulled together their comments, which show why this change is necessary, and the consequences of inaction.


by Aleks Kajstura,

August 17, 2023

2030 is still years away, but the Census Bureau has already begun planning for the next decennial count. Last year, in one of the first steps of the 2030 Census, the Bureau asked for public input on ways to improve the process.

To anyone who has followed the growing, bipartisan momentum on the issue, it will come as no surprise that prison gerrymandering was a frequent topic of public comment. Prison gerrymandering is a problem created because the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people in the wrong place, a prison cell, rather than at their true homes. This practice artificially inflates the populations of areas that contain prisons, giving these areas additional political clout when state and local governments use this Census data to draw new district lines every ten years.

The Bureau received dozens of comments on the topic from a diverse swath of people that are part of the nationwide momentum to end prison gerrymandering. (We already shared our comments, and a letter signed by 35 other criminal justice and voting rights organizations in November.)

The Census Bureau made these comments public, and we poured through them to understand what people were saying about this issue. These comments offer a rare opportunity to hear, in their own words, from incarcerated people, their families, advocates, and government officials about how the Bureau’s flawed way of counting incarcerated people exacerbates racial disparities, undermines our democracy, burdens state and local governments, and treats incarcerated people in a unique and unfair way.

 

Personal impact

The Census is a massive public undertaking, but it is also very personal. The Census counts over 300 million people, collects them into population totals, and publishes them as data tables that are fed into computers for redistricting. But getting counted correctly is still personal. By counting incarcerated people in the wrong place, the Bureau purposefully miscounts each of the 2 million people who are incarcerated on any given day.

As a member of Essie Justice Group, an organization representing women with incarcerated loved ones, explained in her comments counting incarcerated people in the wrong place disregards family connections:

Please end Prison Gerrymandering and count people for the next census in their homes, not where they serve in prison…. My loved one was in 3 prisons in 5 years. It is inaccurate to say he lived in any of them. He lived and now lives again home with his family.

And a formerly incarcerated person in St. Louis, Missouri, explained it ignores where incarcerated people themselves say they reside:

[D]uring the last census I was in Forest City Federal Prison. They never provided any of the prisoners census forms. So, I’m not sure if I was counted, but if I was, the information that they provided wouldn’t have been accurate. I feel that all prisoners should be accurately counted and counted toward where they came from, not where the prison is located.

Most incarcerated people are not given the chance to fill out a Census form. They are excluded from participation and know they cannot trust the Bureau to count them at home. When people perceive that this data doesn’t accurately reflect the true population and demographics, it erodes trust in the Census as a whole. If some individuals believe their communities are not adequately represented, they become skeptical of the entire process, which erodes trust in the Census in the very communities that it itself designates as hard to count.

 

Disparate racial impact

Rather than simply reflecting the racial inequality in society, by counting incarcerated people in the wrong place, the Census perpetuates and exacerbates existing systemic inequalities in society. By not accurately reflecting where incarcerated people live, the Census reinforces the marginalization of communities of color, skews representative power, and perpetuates the cycle of mass incarceration by hindering efforts to address broader issues of racial injustice and inequality within the criminal justice system.

In its comments, Fair Count, a Georgia-based advocacy organization that works to build long-term power in communities that have been historically undercounted in the census, offered suggestions on how the Bureau can address this problem:

Black people make up 38% of the incarcerated population, but only 13% of the general United States population. Considering the disproportionate rate of Black people that are likely to be incarcerated in their lifetime compared to White people and other people of color, it is especially critical to assess how data can be gathered fairly and accurately for this vulnerable population. The Census Bureau can partner with states that have already agreed to re-allocate Census data from incarcerated individuals back to their home addresses which entails mailing census forms directly to the incarcerated individuals for self-response. The goal would be to obtain more quality, accurate data on incarcerated individuals than incomplete, inaccurate data submitted to Census via administrative prison rosters.

Similarly, noting that there is a differential undercount of Black people in the Census, Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), a Louisiana-based organization working to reform the criminal legal system, points out in its comments that changing the way it counts incarcerated people could provide further opportunities for the Bureau to improve its data:

One reason that these undercounts exist is that … census data about those who are incarcerated is gathered by prison officials, rather than those who are actually imprisoned. It is widely understood that incarceration rates in the United States disproportionately impact people of color. … In turn, the census data that is gathered by prison officials fails to accurately reflect demographic statistics concerning issues such as the sex and race of those behind bars.

For instance, the Louisiana Department of Corrections demographic data on race is inaccurate as it only accounts for individuals who are “black” or “white.” …. There are no distinctions for incarcerated residents with other ethnicities and races such as American Indian, Asian and/or Asian American, and/or Hispanic. In addition, the DOC data on sex is reflective of an incarcerated individual’s sex at birth, and thus fails to account for individuals who are transgender.

Therefore, in order to truly reach everyone, the US Census needs to adjust the way that gathers data about those who are incarcerated by allowing this country’s incarcerated population to participate in the census.

 

Failure to meet state and local redistricting data needs

State and local government progress toward ending prison gerrymandering has been fast. Today, roughly half the country lives in a place that has addressed the practice. Progress has been so swift, in fact, that the National Conference of State Legislatures, a strictly bipartisan organization that assists state lawmakers on a wide range of policy issues, recently called it “the fastest-growing trend in redistricting.” However, the Census Bureau hasn’t kept up and as a result, has fallen short of its responsibility to provide states with redistricting data that is ready to use. Instead, states have to spend time and money correcting this data before they can begin the redistricting process.

As more states recognize that incarcerated people should be counted in their home districts, this problem will only get worse unless the Bureau takes steps to better meet redistricting data user needs.

In its comments, the California Legislature echoed the state’s independent redistricting commission’s request that the Bureau count incarcerated people at home and make that data available for state redistricting:

California’s independent redistricting commission voted unanimously to respond to the Federal Register Notice and request that data be provided that counts incarcerated people at their last-known residence instead of the address where they are incarcerated.

California wasn’t alone. Over a dozen states had to adjust Census redistricting data on their own to ensure that incarcerated people were counted at home. In its comments, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice points out the unnecessary burden created by the Bureau:

[B]ecause the Bureau still uses prison gerrymandering in its national count, the burden of correcting the gerrymandered data for the purpose of redistricting falls to states and localities. Where the Census is supposed to provide data fit for use in redistricting, these states and municipalities must now use time and resources they do not have to readjust the data they receive from gerrymandered to non-gerrymandered.

The Census Bureau is failing to deliver one of its core objectives: providing states with the redistricting data needed to draw equal districts.

This isn’t just a problem states face. Over 200 local governments — most of which have even less money, time, and expertise to dedicate to redistricting — also must independently address prison gerrymandering when drawing city council and county commissioner districts.

As a redistricting advocate in Indiana, explained:

Because of the distortions created by counting prisoners, several counties in Indiana already resort to crude attempts to correct the data by simply not counting people in prison when they redistrict. …

While changes in the way the redistricting data was published in 2020 made it easier for these local governments to exclude the prisons from their data, not all took this extra step. And they should not need to. The Census Bureau should publish data that does not put the burden on local government to make it suitable for redistricting.

The states and local jurisdictions aren’t going out on a limb — courts have consistently supported prison gerrymandering reform. In a change of pace from the comments that relied mostly on practical and moral reasoning, Dēmos submitted six pages of legal analysis, which came to the same conclusion:

[T]he facts and legal rulings discussed in this Comment make up only a small part of the vast record of evidence that the Census Bureau’s current residence rule, as applied to incarcerated persons, is outdated and no longer accurately reflects the population that it seeks to count.

 

Inconsistent with other Census rules

By counting incarcerated people in prison cells rather than their true homes, the Census Bureau treats them unfairly and differently than others in similar transitory situations. Incarcerated people are surprisingly mobile, yet, unlike other groups, the Bureau treats them as if they resided at the facility they happen to be assigned to on Census day.

A former New York State Senate redistricting staff member explained in his comments that Census policies on incarcerated people are inconsistent with its other practices for transient populations:

Counting prisoners at the places of incarceration is inconsistent with the treatment of other categories. Persons in military deployment and elementary and secondary school students at boarding schools are counted at their home addresses, even though they may be at their temporary locations much longer than many prisoners. Persons who travel between multiple homes get to decide where they wish to [be] counted, regardless of which home they happen to be occupying on Census Day. In New York City, where I live, the huge number of visitors from elsewhere in the US filling the hotels on Census Day will properly be counted at their permanent home addresses. This practice will be followed even though the visitors will be in their temporary Census Day location by choice, unlike the prison populations.

The counting of university students where they attend school is an entirely different matter. Unlike prisoners, they are eligible to vote at places where they attend school, and they are at those locations by choice. Moreover, the congressmembers and legislators representing those communities have a strong interest in making them attractive places to attend school. Elected representatives have no such relation with the prisoners held in their districts.

 

Undermining Democracy

The Census Bureau plays a central role in ensuring fair and accurate political representation, a fundamental aspect of a functioning democracy. But how it currently counts incarcerated people undermines its ability to accomplish this goal by stripping disproportionately incarcerated communities of their political voices.

The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice explained how the Census Bureau effectively reinstates slavery-era suppression tactics with its refusal to update the residence rules for incarcerated people:

As Black and other people of color are disproportionately incarcerated by the criminal justice system, the voting and political power of their communities are disproportionately weakened by this policy. Given that the vast majority of incarcerated people do not have the right to vote in this country, prison gerrymandering is a modern-day Three-Fifths Compromise.

A coalition of advocates in North Carolina also warned the Bureau against doubling down on practices that perpetuate racial inequality:

Many communities of color see a direct link between the history of slavery, Jim Crow, state-sanctioned racial violence, and the inequities of mass incarceration today, which forms the basis of distrust of government at all levels. By continuing the practice of counting incarcerated people at the site of their incarceration and not in their home communities, the Census Bureau is feeding into this history rather than making appropriate changes toward a more equitable future that fosters trust and collaboration between government and communities.

 

Following the states’ lead for 2030

Counting incarcerated people as if they resided at the prison or jail where they are held on Census Day is increasingly unjustifiable, and the practical challenges of addressing the problem are quickly falling away. As the League of Women Voters pointed out, the Bureau can now rely on two decades of state-led innovation to guide its efforts to address this issue:

As many local governments and state governments have navigated the process of correcting redistricting data to account for census data skewed by prison gerrymandering, the Census Bureau may consider consulting the experience of those jurisdictions to smoothly transition to gathering census information for incarcerated people at their home address.

The Census Equity Initiative and Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation succinctly summarized the path forward for the Bureau:

The Bureau should revise the Residence Criteria and Situations for the 2030 Census to enumerate incarcerated persons, including detained juveniles, at their last home address prior to incarceration. While the Bureau explores a change to its Residence Criteria for incarcerated persons, it should work with states that have changed their redistricting residence rules, along with state and local government associations and other interested stakeholders, on improving a methodology to count incarcerated individuals, including detained juveniles, in their home communities, rather than at the facilities in which they are incarcerated on Census Day.

In their own words, these incarcerated people, their families, advocates, and government officials made the clear case for why it is time for the Census Bureau to change how it counts incarcerated people. The current practice exacerbates racial inequities, frustrates state and local governments, undermines our democracy, and is inconsistent with its own practices.

As the Bureau moves forward on designing the 2030 count, one big question remains: When it comes to ending prison gerrymandering, will it listen to these calls for change, or will it stubbornly cling to outdated and inaccurate practices of the past?

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