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Prison gerrymandering gives extra political power to legislators who have prisons in their districts. We put numbers on the problem and sparked a movement to protect our democratic process from the overgrown prison system.

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Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

Unfair advantage?

by Peter Wagner, May 11, 2010

An Associated Press story is appearing around the county about the new Maryland law that will count incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes.

The story, Lawmakers fight for who gets to count inmates is a fine introduction to the controversy, and I’d like to expand on why this is not an urban vs. rural dispute:

  • The biggest beneficiary of the bill is not Baltimore, which most people in prison call home, but each and every district that does not have a large prison. District 2B, represented by Delegate Shanks, is 18% incarcerated, giving every group of 82 people in that district as much influence as 100 people in any other district. If you don’t live in House District 2B, the law benefits you.
  • The two lead sponsors of the bill, Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore, and Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk, D-Prince George’s, both have large prisons in their districts, but they saw larger issues of fairness at stake.
  • The bill passed with bi-partisan support, including from Senator Munson (R-District 2, which includes House District 2B).
  • As the article says, a big part of why the bill passed was because it would bring fairness to rural county redistricting. That argument won the support of Senator Stoltzfus (R-District 38), who spoke on the floor about why he was going to vote yes:

    I’m gonna vote for this bill, its drawn largely to effect because of my district, we have a large prison in one election district in Somerset county and the population of that prison are counted toward that election district which gives an unfair advantage because it was designed to be a minority election district and unfortunately the history is, in Somerset county is not one that I’m proud of. We have a large minority population that’s not minority its 45 % and there are no minorities represented on the county council. This is a bill that needs to pass. I was first concerned about whether the census formula, census driven formulas would be affected and we have determined that they certainly are not, this only applies to elections, and so I think its the right thing to do having witnessed it first hand in Somerset county, its the right thing to do, so I’m gonna vote for this bill, thank you Mr. President.”

Unfortunately, Delegate Shank, who is quoted in the article, is still tilting at windmills.

However, Maryland House Republican whip Chris Shank, whose rural Washington County district is home to three prisons with an inmate population of roughly 6,300, said Maryland’s law will leave communities like his with fewer representatives and give even more to Baltimore.

“It’s blatantly untrue to say the prisoners don’t have an impact on our district,” Shank said. “They most certainly impact our medical resources based on trips to hospitals and dentists’ offices. They have a tremendous impact on our judicial system, the number of court filings, the workload of our state attorney’s office.”

That prisoners have an impact on his district is not in dispute. Their presence gives people jobs, and when a prisoner needs to go to the dentist, state — not local — taxpayers — get the bill. The question is whether they are residents of his district and should be represented in that district. The state of Maryland said “No”.

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