The Washington Times - July 10, 2008, 04:35PM

My friend Brandon Q. White, over at the SuperSpade blog, has proffered some interesting food-for-thought on America’s prison system. Specifically, what he titles “The 5/3 Compromise,” regarding the Census apportionment of prisoners to the locality of the prison, and not to the prisoner’s pre-incarceration address.

White approvingly cites an Urban Institute study titled “The New Landscape of Imprisonment,” which argues that “because the Census Bureau counts prisoners where they are incarcerated in the decennial census, the locations of prisons may have significant implications for state and federal funding allocations, as well as political representation.”


More people, means more funds, and greater political power.

When you factor in the “one man, one vote” idea, and put thousands of inmates into small towns with just a few thousand people, prison-towns get two things: (a) more “residents” in the area, on a headcount basis (b) a large percentage of those who “live” in town can’t vote. Each voter gets more “voting power” than areas where larger proportions of the electorate is eligible to vote. It makes the system in that town more oligarchic and unrepresentative.

White’s argument is interesting and even persuasive, but it turns a neutral into a negative. Politics require compromise. Indulge me for a moment.

I was once told the tale of how, once upon a time in Michigan, there were three big projects to go around, and three cities in competition.

There was the state prison. There was the state university. And there was the state capital. Jackson got the prison. Ann Arbor got the university. And Lansing became the state capital.

Jackson, for anyone familiar with the area, clearly fared the worst of the three. While the state capital generates a lot of permanent and stable jobs, and the University gives an otherwise sleepy town an incredibly deep and diverse talent pool, the Jackson prison isn’t generating (a) anywhere near the number of jobs or (b) the kinds of jobs that people want to do (like in Lansing) or the kinds of opportunities people cross the globe to take advantage of (like in Ann Arbor).

The elephant in the room here, obviously, is Detroit. The students it sends to Ann Arbor probably won’t be back; and if you’re in Lansing you’re at the state level and don’t have much use for Detroit; and even if the kid ends up in Jackson, in prison, he’s not even considered a resident of the city for census purposes.

We all want prisons built far away from us, but they do have to be built somewhere. And if there were no benefit to having a prison in your municipality, why would anyone allow it? (I felt that the “official” argument against a different counting mechanism is that it will cost an estimated quarter-billion to interview inmates, much less compelling than argung for good old compromise.)

A 5/3 Compromise is exactly what’s going on here. Forget neutral, I’ll double down here: Brandon, isn’t this Compromise evidence that “the system works”? The townspeople don’t want the prison, just like the city people would like to keep their numbers up. The townspeople get the numbers, and the city people get to live without a prison in their midst.

Where did I hear that it’s not a good business deal unless both sides walk away unhappy?

— James David Dickson