The Census Bureau recently announced states will get a new leeway when tallying prisoners in the 2010 census — the bureau plans to release data on inmate populations in time for state legislative boundaries to be redrawn next year.

States will be able to choose whether they want to count prisoners for the purposes of redistricting and, if so, just where “home” for these inmates should be.

The decision could mean a loss of 1,436* residents in Cherokee County — and though those roughly 1,400 inmates would still be physically here, they could be counted as part of their hometown populations.

The bureau’s timing on population breakdowns has been years in the changing — the Daily Progress reported about a possible shift in how inmates are counted in 2005.

And even though timing for the bureau’s reports has changed and many around the country are calling for a shift in how — and where — an inmate is counted, could Texas begin a mass migration, on paper at least, of thousands of inmates from rural areas, where prisons are typically located, to urban areas, from where inmates usually hail?

“I would not propose a change in the way we count prisoners right now, unless we received a court order,” said Rep. Delwin Jones (R-Lubbock), chair of the House Redistricting Committee. “There really isn’t an easy way to find out where these individuals come from. We’ve been counting all prisoners as a resident in the county or town where the prison is located. That’s how we’ll continue to count them.”

While the bureau’s prison data will have breakdowns on where inmates are located, it will not include information on the prisoners’ original hometowns. Thus, states will have to gather that information on their own if they choose to count them in different locations.

Jones said deciphering where inmates should be counted would be an administrative headache for the Texas Legislature.

He used an extreme example of an inmate who may come from Texarkana, is housed in West Texas, and calls both places home — in such an instance, how would the state know which of the locations is truly home for that prisoner?

Analysts say the Census Bureau’s move could prove politically messy, with the devil in the details, because the agency will not release the prison data until May 2011, more than two months after states are given their initial population data by district, so some legislatures may opt not to wait for the additional information or only make cursory use of it.

Rep. Chuck Hopson (R-Jacksonville) agrees the timing of the bureau’s release of information will likely be a factor for Texas.

“The Texas Legislature convenes in January and only stays in session through the end of May,” Hopson said. “With those time constraints and several additional procedural deadlines set by the Texas Constitution, it is unlikely that prison population data received in the last month of session can have an impact on the 2011 redistricting process.”

The immediate area of Cherokee, Anderson and Rusk counties is home to 19,600 inmates currently — East Texas could lose a population equivalent to roughly Jacksonville and Rusk combined, if Texas opts to count prisoners as part of the population of their home towns rather than where they’re housed in the prison system.

Census director Robert Groves made the decision after weeks of discussion with Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., and with public interest and black groups. They called it an important first step toward shifting federal resources and representation back to urban communities, where they believe the aid is needed the most.

“This is going to be a big enough deal where states will have to make some decisions,” said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a Virginia-based firm that crunches political numbers. “We may see an impact ultimately where one political party decides to go one way and draws districts accordingly, the other party goes another way, and we end up with a court case to sort it out.”

The population count, held every 10 years, is used to apportion U.S. House and state legislative and county seats as well as distribute more than $400 billion in federal aid. Some federal and state grants are based on per capita income, which makes prison communities eligible for more money because inmates don’t have much income.

While the 2010 data will not include hometown information, advocacy groups say they are continuing their push for prisoners to be counted as residents of the communities they came from for the next decennial census in 2020.

“For too long, communities with large prisons have received greater representation in government on the backs of people who have no voting rights in the prison community,” said Brenda Wright, director of the Democracy Program at Demos, a research and advocacy organization. “The Census Bureau’s new data will greatly assist states and localities in correcting this injustice.”

East Texas has relatively recently been the home to at least one court case involving redistricting — Henderson v. Perry, filed in 2003, claimed the 2003 congressional redistricting in Texas was essentially gerrymandering. The Supreme Court never ruled on the case, but upheld the Texas Legislature’s 2003 redistricting action in similar cases.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

* Prison populations used above were gathered Feb. 12, 2010. Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials note prison populations are a fluid number and can change from day to day.

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