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Prisoners of the census

REPUBLICAN State Rep. and Second Amendment stalwart Russell H. Fairchild received an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association's Victory Fund in 2008, as he did in 2006, up from the A he got during the two previous election cycles.

REPUBLICAN State Rep. and Second Amendment stalwart Russell H. Fairchild received an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association's Victory Fund in 2008, as he did in 2006, up from the A he got during the two previous election cycles.

Conservative rural Pennsylvanians are entitled to their opinion. But nearly 8 percent of Fairchild's constituents can't vote: 2,499 of the 2,878 African-Americans in Union County are inmates at Allenwood and Lewisberg federal prisons, mostly from places like Philadelphia, where most voters favor gun control. The census, you see, counts prisoners as residents of wherever their jail cells happen to be.

According to a 2009 study by the Prison Policy Initiative, "Blacks are 9.2 times as likely to be in prison as white people, but the state and federal prison cells are located in disproportionately white counties. Ninety-three percent of prisoners in Pennsylvania are incarcerated in counties that have a larger proportion of white people than the state has as a whole."

There's plenty of justified hand-wringing over gerrymandering and the freakishly shaped districts that incumbents create to protect their seats. But the artificial inflation of rural political clout at the expense of Philly's impoverished and violence-ridden neighborhoods isn't discussed as often. And it's a wholesale violation of civil rights.

In April, Maryland became the first state to pass a law requiring that prisoners be counted in their home districts, adding an estimated 12,000 Baltimoreans to the city's official population. Pennsylvania should follow suit.

There are eight legislative districts in Pennsylvania that would be illegally small were it not for these prisoners. Forty percent of state inmates are from Philly, but the vast majority are imprisoned in other parts of the state.

Residents of rural, mostly white, counties have disproportionate representation in Harrisburg thanks to these prisoners, who by state law are barred from voting.

The transfer of electoral power from city to country and from black to white makes a mockery of the "One person, one vote" principle. U.S. democracy requires that legislative districts be of similar size lest residents of smaller districts have a weightier vote than those in bigger ones.

Once upon a time, this wasn't such a big deal. But the state prison population has more than quintupled over the last 30 years, reaching 51,457 in March of this year. Philadelphia's growing political loss is rural Pennsylvania's ill-gotten gain.

This is certainly not what's meant when white communities are encouraged to "embrace diversity." Prisoners leave urban communities behind: You won't find them at the general store or Kiwanis clubs of rural Pennsylvania. They are incarcerated in communities that they are in no real sense a part of.

State law already considers prisoners residents of their home communities, declaring that "no individual who is confined in a penal institution shall be deemed a resident of the election district where the institution is located. The individual shall be deemed to reside where the individual was last registered before being confined in the penal institution, or, if there was no registration prior to confinement, the individual shall be deemed to reside at the last known address before confinement."

Abiding by the census status quo is contrary to state law. Sure, people should be responsible for crimes they commit, and the excessive lock-'em-up mentality that's fueled the recent prison boom is an important topic.

But no matter your opinion of the criminal-justice system, the result of committing a crime should not be a bizarre electoral lottery that transfers political power away from Philly to the countryside. This makes about as much sense as counting a U.S. soldier as a resident of Mosul or Kandahar. Even Fairchild says he wouldn't mind prisoners being counted in their home districts.

PHILADELPHIA now has "Philly Counts," an energetic campaign to boost the city's census response rate, including a "Census Barbershop Tour" and "Census Sermon Weekend." But according to a spokeswoman, Mayor Nutter is deferring to the federal government and won't lobby for Philly prisoners to be counted in their home communities.

But we need not wait on the census to change its ways or for the mayor to step up. The legislature should ensure that prisoners' homes are noted and counted before the next redistricting. City voters shouldn't be held prisoner by the census.

Daniel Denvir is a freelance journalist in West Philadelphia.