Counting inmates where they live: Redistricting Commission ponders jail and prison populations

  • Pat Nakamoto

  • James Hustace

Should inmates in Big Island correctional facilities be counted at the facility itself or where they usually live when they’re not incarcerated?

That’s a question the county Redistricting Commission is mulling over as it strives to draw boundary lines for County Council districts for the next decade.

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It’s more than a philosophical debate: As commissioners redraw maps census block by census block, large group populations such as jails and prisons can skew census blocks that may contain only a handful of people in residences, taking away home population of inmates who may live elsewhere on the island.

“Including incarcerated persons in the population count for the district in which their facility is located alters representational proportions and, as a result, the voting power of residents,” Jacob Aki, representing Common Cause Hawaii said Thursday in testimony to the commission. “Counting Hawaii’s incarcerated population according to their home addresses will eliminate this issue and ensure an accurate and true reapportionment.”

Commissioner Meizhu Lui agreed.

“It seems like it’s not fair to those people where they have permanent homes because there would be an undercount there,” Lui said, adding she feared “we don’t have a way of finding out where the permanent address is.”

Moving inmate counts to their regular addresses could especially affect Hilo, home to Hawaii Community Correctional Center, which on March 31, 2020, had an official count of 388 inmates, according to statistics furnished by the Hawaii Department of Public Safety. In comparison, Kulani minimum security prison, located about 20 miles southwest of Hilo, had 166 inmates on that date. The census counted the population as of April 1, 2020.

In fact, group populations in Hilo’s census tract 202.02 alone account for 15.7% of the total population of 2,035, according to census data. A tract is a group of census blocks, which form the smallest geography of the census counts.

County Election Division Administrator Pat Nakamoto said she’s been in contact with the warden at Hawaii Community Correctional Center and also the state Department of Business, Economic Development &Tourism, the statistical agency for the state, trying to clarify where the inmates were counted.

For jails and prisons, the U.S. Census Bureau sends a form that Public Safety fills in to create a spreadsheet showing the home addresses reported by inmates, state reapportionment staffer David Rosenbrock told the state Reapportionment Commission earlier this month. It’s not known, however, whether the federal bureau subtracts them from the facility census block and reallocates them to their permanent residences, he said.

Aki said several states have passed laws requiring inmates be counted at their usual residence rather than the facility where they’re incarcerated.

He provided the commission a step-by-step guide explaining how to do that, if the inmates haven’t already been reallocated by the Census Bureau.

That may be a good idea, but the commission is running out of time, noted Commissioner James Hustace.

Because census numbers came late due to the coronavirus pandemic, the commission is racing toward a Dec. 31 deadline to have maps drawn and presented in public hearings and a final map filed with the county clerk.

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We’re in a crunch,” Hustace said. “I’m not trying to gerrymander any prison districts; just wondering how in the time we have.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.