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States Get New Leeway to Tally Prisoners in Census

Associated Press

Prisoners will soon be bigger players in those high-stakes redistricting fights thanks to a change in federal policy governing how they're to be counted in the 2010 census.

In this week's policy change on prisoner counts, Census officials said they would release data on prison populations to states when they redraw legislative boundaries next year. This gives states more leeway in tallying their prisoners -- a move that could reshape the political map.

Census director Robert Groves made the decision after weeks of discussion with Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., and with public interest and black groups. They called it an important first step toward shifting federal resources and representation back to urban communities, where they believe the aid is needed the most.

"For too long, communities with large prisons have received greater representation in government on the backs of people who have no voting rights in the prison community," said Brenda Wright, director of the Democracy Program at Demos, a research and advocacy organization. "The Census Bureau's new data will greatly assist states and localities in correcting this injustice."

The impact could be strongly felt in states such as New York, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, California, Texas and Maryland, where prisons are found in more sparsely populated areas. In New York, for instance, most of the 60,000 inmates live in prisons in rural upstate communities, even though half the inmate population committed crimes in New York City.