Why Counting Chicago’s Prison Population Isn’t As Easy as 1-2-3

Jack Higgins

Where does a prisoner live?

Obviously, prisoners lay their heads on a bed in a cell every night. But should they be counted as residents of the communities where they’re imprisoned, or where they committed their crimes?

Traditionally, prisoners have been counted in prisons, which bolsters the populations of rural communities like Tamms, Dixon and Menard. But this year, the U.S. Census Bureau is allowing states to count them at their old home addresses. It’s an issue that’s dividing urban and rural legislators in Illinois.

The Chicago City Council wants its prisors counted as Chicagoans. It passed a resolution in favor of the Prisoner Census Adjustment Act, which is sponsored by Rep. LaShawn K. Ford, (D-Chicago).

Chicago has 26,000 inmates,” Ald. Pat Dowell pointed out on the Council floor. “Each inmate represents $15,000 per person. That’s $675 million to capture for Chicago.”

It’s also $675 million that wouldn’t go to prison towns, which means the state legislature won't be as quick to lock down the idea.

“Rep. Ford would get the money, but the folks I represent would be taking care of the prisoners,” House Minority Leader Ron Stephens, (R-Highland), who has three prisons in his district, complained. “It’s a horrible public policy change. The system is fair now."

Also at stake is  political representation. Some Downstate districts are bolstered by thousands of inmates who can’t vote. (The Prison Policy Institute calls it “prison-based gerrymandering.”) Their representatives are more likely to support measures that keep prison guards in business than job training and drug treatment programs that prevent parolees from backsliding.

“Those communities don't know how to represent those people,” Ford told Progress Illinois. “And they have little interest in doing so.”

Ford’s bill, which is sponsored exclusively by Chicago-area Democrats, is currently languishing in the Rules Committee. Giving criminals more political power is a tough sell. So far, Maryland is the only state that’s taken up the Census Bureau on its offer to count prisoners at home.

The Chicago City Council had no trouble approving the measure, but in an election year, don’t look for the General Assembly to do the same.

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