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Prison-based Gerrymandering coming to Nebraska?

by Aleks Kajstura, December 8, 2010

The York News-Times, of York, Nebraska answered readers’ questions about the census, hinting at the building-blocks of prison-based gerrymandering:

Q: Since there seems to be so much importance on population in certain districts due to politics, funds, grants, etc. how and who gets the credit for men and women who are in prisons, etc., if they are from other states or locations?

A: Incarcerated persons are considered residents of the city/county where the prison is located. For example, Johnson County in Nebraska is said to have one of the biggest explosions in population since 2000 (having the second fastest growing area), which is being credited to the construction and implementation of the new prison in Tecumseh. Because of the new correctional facility, that county has increased by more than 13 percent since the beginning of this decade.

As the staff of the York News-Times noted, the census residence rules for prison populations can skew demographics for the areas surrounding the prison. Although funding is not affected by these miscalculations, there is substantial harm done to the basic principles of equality and democracy.

The Bureau’s residence rule for incarcerated people fails to reflect the fact that under Nebraska law, a prison is not a legal residence. This discrepancy creates problems for redistricting. When redistricting data does not match real resident populations, some people are given more say in government simply because they live near a large prison.

When we published our findings for Nebraska in our 50 State Guide there was not much to report. A prison built since the 2000 Census changes that. When county district lines are redrawn for the new decade, however, the Johnson County Board of Commissioners could easily fall prey to prison-based gerrymandering if they don’t adjust the Census’ redistricting data.

A new prison in Johnson County, the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, will skew the redistricting data. If the redistricting data is not adjusted, the resulting districts will be vastly unequal:

  • Counting people incarcerated at the prison as if they were residents of Johnson County, will create a district with over half of its population incarcerated. This would give the actual residents of the district over twice as much influence over county affairs as anyone who lives in the other 2 districts.

Many counties are not aware that they have the legal and technical ability to correct the Census Bureau’s counts prior to redistricting. More than 100 counties around the country excluded the prison population from their redistricting calculations. The Census Bureau is also making things easier for this redistricting cycle by publishing an advanced group quarters table, that will allow counties such as Johnson to easily adjust their redistricting data to correct for the prison population when drawing new districts.

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