by Aleks Kajstura, May 25, 2017
The New Jersey legislature just voted to end “prison gerrymandering” — the practice of using prisons to transfer power away from home communities of incarcerated people and giving it to legislative districts that contain prisons. Senate Bill 587 passed the Senate in November, and the Assembly on Monday, May 22. Now it’s up to Governor Christie to sign the bill into law and end prison gerrymandering in New Jersey.
Before I delve into what this bill actually does, I’ll address a common misconception related to the distribution of funding. The bill would have no effect on the distribution of federal or state funds — all funding programs have their own data sources that do not rely on redistricting data.
With that clarification out of the way, here is what the bill is all about: New Jersey stumbled into the prison gerrymandering problem because, like many states, bases its legislative districts on U.S. Census Bureau data. Unfortunately, the Census counts incarcerated people as if they were residents of the correctional facility where they happen to be located on Census day. This quirk in the Census data creates unequal representation when it is used for redistricting.
The unfortunate result of using prison populations to pad the legislative districts that contain prisons is to enhance the weight of votes cast in those districts while diluting every vote cast in districts without prisons.
The problem is amplified by New Jersey’s voting laws. People convicted of felonies in New Jersey cannot vote while they are incarcerated, and those who are incarcerated for misdemeanors or awaiting trial vote absentee in their home districts. This means that someone who votes while incarcerated is required to vote for their representative in their home district, but on paper gets counted toward as a constituent of the representative of the prison district. This mismatch creates unequal representation.
Senate Bill 587 is a simple state-based solution to a problem that should have been corrected by the federal government. The bill uses the state’s administrative records to reassign incarcerated people to their home addresses before redistricting. Ideally, the U.S. Census Bureau will change its policy and count incarcerated people as residents of their home addresses, but the state should be prepared to have its own solution in place for the next redistricting cycle.
New Jersey is poised to become the fifth state to pass legislation ending prison-based gerrymandering. New York and Maryland have already passed and implemented similar laws to count people in prison at home for this round of redistricting, and both states’ laws were successfully defended in court. Delaware and California passed legislation that will take effect after the next Census in 2020.
Governor Christie can now take the final step to end prison gerrymandering and ensure equal representation for all New Jersey residents.