Rural lawmakers fight bill to count inmates at home instead of jail

By Andy Rosen

Urban and rural delegates locked horns Saturday afternoon over where inmates should be counted by the U.S. Census — at their former homes or in prison.

The House gave preliminary approval to a bill that would prohibit the state from counting prisoners as residents of the county where they are in jail, unless those prisoners resided in that county before they were put away. The information would be used in the redrawing of legislative districts in the state following this year’s Census count.

The bill, similar to a measure that has already passed the Senate, could come to a final vote in the House within days. But it didn’t go without a fight from rural delegates whose districts include state prison facilities, and who accused urban lawmakers of trying to artificially boost their census counts.

House Minority Whip Chris Shank, R-Washington, said his district includes about 8,000 people who are incarcerated at three correctional facilities near Hagerstown. Most of them come from Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, he said.

Shank proposed an amendment that would have imposed similar restrictions on people living in military barracks and college campuses, but it was defeated by a vote of 45 to 92.

“It’s a blatant attempt to pad urban districts like Baltimore City that lost representation in the last redistricting,” he said.

The optimum size of a district in Maryland is projected to grow to about 120,000 people after this year’s Census, according to legislative documents, and there are nearly 22,000 prisoners in state facilities.

Lawmakers also wrangled over whether the change would affect state funding.

Del. Joselyne Pena-Melnyk, D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s, was the sponsor of the House bill. She said the legislation was not intended to affect the amount of aid going to counties where prisons are located. It’s supposed to provide a more accurate count of who’s living where.

“It will not affect funding at all,” she said. “The bill is very simple.”

But Del. Richard Sossi, R-Upper Shore, said the Census is largely about financial assistance. He pointed out that the counts are used to distribute all sorts of state aid. One of the major factors in many cases is the number of people

“The whole point of the Census isn’t just idle curiosity,” he said.

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