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November 22, 2004
NIMBY (Doesn't) Come Home To Roost

The New York Times editorial board takes aim at the practices of the US Census Bureau when it comes to counting prisoners. The census takers count prisoners as residents of the city/county where the prison is located rather than in their home towns and states which, according to the NYT, shortchanges the urban areas from which the criminals come:

The citizens of large cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have helped to pay the cost of building and maintaining state prisons, which provide much-needed jobs in many rural districts. They did not, however, count on also giving these generally underpopulated areas extra political influence as well.

The nonvoting inmates - sometimes called "imported constituents'' - are often counted in rural districts where legislators vote against the interest of their home cities. Their presence in the census count of prison neighborhoods distorts population statistics and creates legislative districts that fly in the face of federal laws requiring districts to be roughly the same size - plus or minus a variation of about 5 percent.

Well, why are these prisons being built in the boondocks? Because urban dwellers and established suburbs have long fought the building of their own detention facilities in what's called the NIMBY attitude (Not In My Back Yard). Cities don't want to give up prime real estate and suffer a hit to their tax base, and the suburbs don't want to have inmates near their schools or churches. The resultant migration of penal institutions benefit underemployed areas of the country, although I don't necessarily know that they tend to be primarily white -- and the Times doesn't provide any evidence to support that conclusion.

The Times argues that this is only an issue now that the prison population has exploded, but that explosion occurred in the 1980s, with the passage of tough drug-sentencing laws. Now that reapportionment power has passed to mainly Republican state legislatures, the Gray Lady belatedly finds that the prison census to be a national emergency. Nor does their solution hold up to more than superficial analysis. They propose to have prisoners fill out their census queries with their home addresses, but how long does a prisoner have to be sentenced to be considered a resident of the prison? Surely lifers would have to be counted as a prison resident, since they won't ever be released to their home towns.

In truth, the urban centers shoved off the problems of housing criminals to the rural areas, not so much because the rural areas wanted prisons but because they lacked the political pull to stop them from being built. Cities and saturated suburban areas congratulated themselves on pushing their problems out of sight, while the rural areas took on the risk to their citizens. Now the Times argues that not only should the cities avoid their responsibilities but that they should also avoid the consequences for avoiding their responsibilities. Hogwash.

If New York City wants their criminals to count towards apportionment, then condemn office space in the city and build a prison instead. I'd suggest Turtle Bay. Not only would that give New York plenty of room to keep their own prisoners, it comes with plenty of crooks to kick-start the program.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 22, 2004 12:20 PM

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