Illinois bill to end prison based gerrymandering will leave funding unchanged

by Aleks Kajstura, March 30, 2011  

As Illinois’ bill to end prison-based gerrymandering (HB 94, introduced by Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago)) moves through the House, elected officials in downstate Illinois are worried about equal representation coming at the cost of state aid to their communities. Ironically, HB 94 will have no impact on the amount of aid communities get while ensuring that everyone in the state has equal representation at local and state levels of government – the bill would only adjust redistricting data, while leaving funding formulas and other official population counts intact.

The Lawrence County, Illinois Daily Record reported on the problems faced by the county. When Lawrence County redistricts, the people incarcerated at the Lawrence Correctional Center would be counted as if they were residents of the county. The paper explains:

During this process, the Lawrence County Board will take the county’s total population and divide it evenly into seven legislative districts to ensure all residents have equal voting power. However, with inmates thrown into the mix, District 2, which contains the prison, will only have 49 people who can actually vote after redistricting takes place. These residents will have 50 times more voting power than residents in other districts.

For example, if two candidates were running for the District 2 seat on Lawrence County Board, one candidate would only need 25 votes to win the election. However, if the candidates were running in any other district, one would need 1,204 votes to win.

Such drastic inequalities would be fixed by HB 94, while the bill would also protect any state and federal funds that Lawrence may gain by having a prison within its borders.

A story on further questions the reasonableness of counting an involuntary and temporary population as if they were actual residents:

On current legislative maps, prisoners who serve even a two-year prison sentence are recorded as residents of the correctional center for the next 10 years.

This means that short-term inmates at Menard counted just as much toward equalizing the population of southwestern Illinois districts as lifelong residents and regular voters. They are represented by state Rep. Dan Reitz, D-Sparta, and state Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville.

Reitz acknowledges that the current way of counting prisoners may not make the most sense.

“Unless they are there for a long time, it’s not a very good reflection,” said Reitz.

He would like to see the proposal amended to take into account the length of an inmate’s sentence, he said.

Rep. Reitz’s analysis is on the right track, and is supported by the bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Rita Mayfield Rita Mayfield (D-Waukegan), who was quoted by Heartland News:

“There is documentation to support that over 85 percent of released inmates return to their pre-conviction addresses,” Mayfield said. “None stay in area surrounding prisons (unless they were originally from that area). Census numbers are not accurately reflected.”

Illinois law matches this reality, and explicitly states that an incarcerated person is not a resident of the prison location, but rather retains his permanent residence throughout his sentence.

Some try to argue that even if one prisoner leaves, another arrives, giving the prison the same population, but under Illinois law, none of the people incarcerated at the prison ever become residents of the town or district that the prison is in simply by their physical presence there.

The majority of Illinois counties already use adjusted redistricting data to prevent prison populations from skewing their residents’ political power. HB 94 would ensure that all residents of Illinois are equally represented at the state and local levels while leaving current funding streams untouched.

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