By DAN SMALLWOOD
Capital News Service
LANSING – When lawmakers redraw legislative and congressional district lines this year, it’s unlikely that Michigan’s nearly 46,000 prison inmates will come to mind.
But there’s a question as to whether to count them where they currently live – in prison – or in the community where they lived prior to incarceration.
Prisoners in Michigan are now counted at the address where they spend most of their time.
Although felons behind bars cannot vote in elections in Michigan, counting them as residents can inflate the population of districts with prisons.
With state House districts of about 90,000 residents and Senate districts of about 260,000 residents, counting them at their last known address could alter representation and have an impact on the partisan breakdown of the Legislature for future elections.
The new lines will take effect for the 2012 elections.
In New York, Delaware and Maryland, however, prisoners are counted at their last known address.
William Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a weekly political newsletter, said he couldn’t see the practice in some East Coast states being adopted in Michigan anytime soon.
Wayne County Democrats, he said, simply don’t have the leverage to push through that kind of a change.
Ballenger said he doubts there would be a sizable impact on representation if a change occurs, but it could have a potentially sizable impact on federal funding nearly immediately.
While a change in counting prisoners at their last known address isn’t likely in the current political climate, were it to be approved, implementation might not be difficult.
John Cordell, a public information specialist for the Department of Corrections, said prisons aren’t always provided a last known address, but such situations are uncommon.
He said the emergency contacts prisoners provide could make it easier to gather that information.
“Whether those prisoners were counted in terms of the Census would have no significant impact on our operations,” he said.
Overall, the 2010 Census found that 39 of Michigan’s 83 counties lost population over the previous decade. Detroit’s loss of 25 percent of residents between 2000 and 2010 contributed to Wayne County losing 11.7 percent of its population.
According to Cordell, Wayne County sends the most inmates to the state prison system, followed by Oakland, Genesee and Kent counties. While Wayne County hosts two correctional facilities, Oakland, Genesee, and Kent have none.
Gratiot County, which has the largest single state prison, Central Michigan Correctional Facility, with nearly 2,400 inmates, had a Census population increase of 0.4 percent since 2000.
State Prisons in Jackson, Ionia, Chippewa and Gratiot counties house the most inmates in the system, according to Cordell.
Ballenger said the political shifts would be hard for politicians to analyze.
“A long-term policy would be needed to yield results,” he said. “It’s like turning an ocean liner around.”
“If we were starting from scratch, I might say it makes more sense for prisoners to be counted at their last known address,” he said, “but that is not the law.”