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December 27, 2005
Gray Lady Still Pining For Her Lost Convicts

One of the silliest memes generated in the last few years is the counting of imprisoned convicts during the regular Census. The Gray Lady has long complained about the practice of counting American citizens as part of the Census in the counties where they are incarcerated, instead of either (a) counting where they would be living if the poor dears hadn't gotten themselves convicted, or (b) not counting them at all. It seems that the NIMBY-fueled practice of building prisons out in the hinterlands, where the attendant security and potential crime associated with jailkeeping becomes Someone Else's Problem, dilutes the political impact of the Big Apple:

The first Constitution took for granted that enslaved people could not vote, but counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of apportioning representation in Congress. This inflated the voting power of slaveholders and gave them much more influence in legislative matters than their actual numbers warranted. No American would knowingly tolerate such an arrangement today. But a glitch in the census that inflates the populations of some state legislative districts - thus exaggerating their voting power - has led to a contemporary version of that problem. It involves counting prison inmates in the district where they are confined rather than where they actually live. The Census Bureau could fix this problem in a heartbeat, so it needs to get a move on.

This isn't the NYT's first swing at this pitch, but at least they have stopped using ridiculously fictional numbers for their arguments. (See here, here, here, and here for CQ posts on this same subject from the Times' last attempt at this argument.) Unfortunately, the Times still uses the same faulty logic to shift blame from New Yorkers to the Census Bureau for their policy decisions.

First off, the Times attempts to draw a fictional distinction between where an inmate lives and where he is incarcerated. In fact, an inmate lives in prison, not where he'd like to live if he hadn't gotten convicted of a crime. I might live in California, but if I robbed a bank in Minneapolis, I'd be living in Stillwater and not Sacramento. Second, what the Times proposes would require sliding scales of living based on the expected detention time. If I was only going to serve two years and parole out, I would get counted as 8/10ths of a person for NYC, perhaps? And that would get decided when, and what if I decided to move to Utica instead after my actual release? Nor does the thought of simply skipping over convicts work, especially not from a Constitutional point of view. The intent and the language included in the Constitution did not limit the count to "voters"; it meant to count each person in the United States. The shameful 3/5ths compromise that the NYT suddenly supports meant to get around the fact that the prevailing law did not recognize slaves as humans, an odd position for the Paper of Record to take vis-a-vis convicts in prison.

But most of all, this editorial fails because it refuses to admit the culpability of NYC and other large cities in sending their convicts out of their jurisdiction. Why? They refuse to spend the money on building and maintaining prisons for long-term convicts. They don't want to eat up valuable real estate that could bring in tax money rather than spend money on taking care of their own criminal element. The people in these large cities would rather shove that responsibility off onto the hicks in the countryside. That NIMBY impulse may serve them well when it comes to gobbling up tax revenues, but now that it impacts their political representation, they want to eat their cake and have it too. Meanwhile, the people who have to deal with NYC's convicts in their communities have to deal with all of the extra cost of securing their communities and watching as eminent domain eats up their saleable real estate.

The Big Apple can take one of two actions to solve the problem. Either they take up some of that real estate that goes to pricey condos and office space and start housing their own security problems, or they can convince Congress to amend the Constitution declaring that convicted felons aren't really human beings at all and don't deserve to be counted in the Census. Otherwise, the editorial board should really move onto another subject entirely.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 27, 2005 6:48 AM

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