Counting criminals 

Montana’s prison population quadrupled between 1980 and 2000. That’s a symptom of many somethings, but to Peter Wagner, a Massachusetts-based researcher with the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), the stat comes with a side effect: Concentrated prison populations skew the way legislative districts are drawn in Montana, giving undue power to prison towns and potentially shortchanging other communities.

PPI released a report Dec. 14 concluding “communities that send a lot of people to prison lose political clout in the legislature.” That’s because of a “quirk” in the way the census counts prisoners, who can’t in any case vote under Montana law. Nevertheless, and despite Montana election statutes defining that a prison cannot be a “residence,” the once-a-decade U.S. census counts prisoners as residents of the county in which the prison is located.

Montana’s big winner is House District 85, including parts of Powell and Deer Lodge counties, population almost 15 percent prisoner. That, according to Wagner, gives HD 85 an edge—since legislative districts are defined by population—that may run counter to the U.S. Supreme Court’s “One Person One Vote” rule. HD-85 representative Cynthia Hiner could not be reached for comment by deadline.

Wagner admits the news isn’t terribly relevant at the moment (the next census, and redistricting, is in 2010), “but by the time it becomes exciting in 2009, it will be too late.” So Wagner sent his report to Susan Fox, the Legislative Services Division redistricting coordinator in Helena, in hopes of introducing the issue to legislators.

Fox is intrigued and may ask a staffer to present it to the legislative interim committee handling election issues next summer, but otherwise isn’t sure what to do with it.

“It’s fascinating and important…I’ve never had anyone bring this up before,” said Fox, for whom the report raises still more questions: How should you count out-of-state inmates in Montana prisons? Why count children?

“It’s interesting,” Fox said, “but practically, it would take a lot of work to make it work. Prison populations are not the only gray areas.”

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