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Bill would alter inmate count for Census

April 03, 2010|By ERIN JULIUS

ANNAPOLIS -- Washington County might lose about 6,000 people from its legislative and congressional districts because of a bill that has been passed by both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly.

The bill excludes state inmates who were not state residents before their incarceration, and requires that prisoners be counted as residents of their last known address before prison.

About 6,000 prisoners are housed in the three state prisons south of Hagerstown, a prison spokesman said Friday.

Local jail populations are not included in the bill.

All but one of Washington County's eight local lawmakers voted against the measure.

The change in how to count the population will be relevant in creating legislative districts for the U.S. Congress, Maryland General Assembly, and county and municipal governing bodies, according to the bill.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, called the bill "a blatant power grab by, predominantly, the Baltimore City delegation." Changing how prisoners are counted will benefit the Baltimore City and Prince George's County delegations because most of the prisoners in the state prison system are from the more urban areas of the state.

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Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, also expressed concerns. Two areas Edwards represents -- Washington and Allegany counties --would be affected.

About 3,000 state prisoners are held in two facilities near Cumberland, a prison spokesman said.

Another 1,503 prisoners are held by the Bureau of Prisons at a federal facility in Cumberland, according to a fiscal note prepared by the Department of Legislative Services that was attached to the bill.

After the 2000 census, the ideal population for a General Assembly district --with a plus or minus 5 percent margin of error --is 112,691. The ideal congressional district size is 662,061.

The state legislative districts are expected to increase to about 120,000 following the 2010 census, and the congressional districts are expected to grow to about 722,425, according to the fiscal note.

Edwards believes the change in population counts --taking 4,000 people out of Allegany County's population --could push the outlines of his district, District 1, further east into Washington County because Garrett and Allegany counties are not growing, Edwards said.

However, it's tough to judge what will happen without the numbers, and with a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent, things might stay as they are, he said.

It's unfair, however, because having prison facilities in its midst puts pressure on a community's public services, Edwards said.

"It's important they maintain getting the money per person per capita," he said.

Shank also mentioned the impact prisons have on local services. He cited the local criminal justice system and hospital as two examples.

Shank also thinks it's likely that District 1 will further encroach into Washington County and that his district -- Subdistrict 2B --might get pushed into Frederick County as a result of the change in counts, he said.

Residents in that district then, potentially, might be represented by someone who is not a Washington County resident, he said.

"That's a real serious problem," he said.

Del. Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, also voted against the bill, calling it a power grab. The public perception of prisoners staying in the surrounding community once released is another way the facilities affect local areas, Kelly said.

Kelly doesn't believe former inmates do stay, but it's a perception those communities must deal with, he said.

Shank believes some prisoners might stay.

"There's no guarantee those people will return to those districts," he said.

State Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, voted for the bill in the Senate. He also is one of the heads of the census in Washington County.

The bill will allow Maryland to join a group of states that have an agreement with the U.S. Census Bureau to more clearly identify certain groups, including prisoners, Munson said.

Munson believes the bill will improve data collected by the census and have little effect on Washington County, he said.

While the strain prisons put on the local criminal justice system is a valid point, Munson believes the amount that prison employees pay in taxes far outweighs that cost, to the benefit of Washington County, he said.

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