Prisoner tally set to boost city data

First-of-its-kind Md. law could add as many as 12,000 to Baltimore's population

April 25, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

For more than two decades, Rico Marzano called prison cells in Jessup and Cumberland his home.

But this year, the convicted murderer serving four consecutive life sentences will be recorded as a Baltimore resident, even though he won't step foot in his Frankford neighborhood any time soon.Marzano and thousands of other Maryland inmates are being reclassified under a contentious law approved this month by Gov. Martin O'Malley that alters how prison populations are counted during the once-a-decade census.

Maryland became the first state to decide that inmates should be considered residents of the jurisdiction of their last permanent address and not of the prisons where they are housed. The change came after the Census Bureau announced it would be providing states with detailed data about institutionalized groups such as the military and college students in time for redistricting efforts.

The decision has significant implications for Baltimore, which has been losing population for decades, and which produces as many as 6 in 10 of the state's 21,000 inmates.

Baltimore's official population could grow by 12,000 because of the new law, an increase that could help preserve the city's political clout when congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn to reflect the 2010 census.

Urban-area lawmakers and civil rights activists lauded the move, calling it a proper solution to a history of inflated populations in prison towns.

"There's enough people moved around to break how democracy works," said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts, who testified in favor of the Maryland law.

State Sen. Catherine Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat and lead sponsor of her chamber's version of the legislation, emphasized that the plan does not affect how much money the city and other jurisdictions will receive based on census counts. It only applies to the drawing of election district lines.

But the new program is being lambasted by officials in rural parts of the state that contain large prisons. They see a bald effort by Baltimore City and Prince George's County in particular to maintain and build power, at the expense of their communities.

"Baltimore City is trying to pad their numbers in the census, because they're scared they're going to lose representation," said Del. Kevin Kelly, a Democrat who represents Allegany County. "I don't see where the fairness is."

Kelly said the 4,500 state and federal inmates kept in Cumberland will cost the county money for years. The prisoners in his county are doing enough time to make them more a part of his communities than their hometowns, he said.

"When they have to be hospitalized, they're going to be treated in our hospitals," Kelly said. "My phones ring when the correctional officers are injured or worse, and I deal with the community concerns."

With Allegany losing residents, Kelly anticipates that the lines of his legislative district will shift when prisoners are excluded.

Many Baltimore leaders make no apologies for the gains they'll see in population count and argue that many areas of the city are unfairly losing leverage.

"I don't think fairness and political power are mutually exclusive," said Sen. Verna L. Jones, a Baltimore Democrat, adding that the neighborhoods she represents in the city's central and southwest areas have lost enough population to jeopardize the interests of those remaining.

"It is about fairness, because you have these individuals who have families living in these communities, and because the lines are going to be redrawn, Baltimore might have been in danger of losing representation that we could not afford to lose," she said.

Opponents scoffed at the argument that prisoners' displacement from Baltimore is often temporary.

"To close your eyes and tap your shoes three times and pretend that they're going to be returning and that they are not in our jurisdiction is just disingenuous," said Del. Christopher Shank, a Republican who represents Washington County. The county is home to three correctional facilities in Hagerstown, with 6,000 inmates.

"It is a blatant power grab. ... and Baltimore City is looking at losing seats in the General Assembly because of its declining population," Shank added.

Baltimore's leaders have long sought ways to preserve the city's influence in Annapolis and Washington as its population declined.

The number of city residents peaked at nearly 950,000 in 1950 and has dropped every decade since, even as the population of the state has grown.

Recent figures show that the city lost about 14,000 residents between 2000 and 2008 and had a population of about 637,000.

Since 1974, each statewide reapportionment has cost the city at least one Senate district.

As recently as 2002, 10 of Maryland's 47 state senators represented all or part of Baltimore.

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