by Leah Sakala, June 28, 2012

Even though the Massachusetts Special Joint Committee on Redistricting only last year released the new state legislative district maps, the members are already planning ahead for next decade. This afternoon, the Committee is holding a hearing to collect public feedback on the redistricting process in anticipation of their wrap-up report on how the redistricting process went and what they can improve for the next round of redistricting after the 2020 Census.

Prison Policy Initiative’s Executive Director, Peter Wagner, is there to present testimony he co-authored with Brenda Wright of Dēmos that details what the legislature can do to prevent prison populations from distorting the redistricting process next time around. Committee Co-Chair Senator Stan Rosenberg has already pointed to the problem of prison-based gerrymandering as one of the main issues to resolve moving forward.

A provision of the Massachusetts Constitution made it difficult for the Massachusetts legislature to pass a bill ending prison-based gerrymandering like the ones in Maryland, New York, Delaware, and California. But now, the Massachusetts legislature has the time to take concrete action to make sure that prison-based gerrymandering doesn’t continue to be a problem, and the Redistricting Committee’s wrap-up report is a perfect opportunity to start taking proactive steps.

As the testimony explains, the best solution would be for the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people at their home addresses in the 2020 Census, ending the issue of prison-based gerrymandering nationwide. Massachusetts can send the message to the Census Bureau that change is needed by documenting the way prison-based gerrymandering distorts state legislative districts, and by enacting a bill or resolution calling on the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people at home.

Also, Massachusetts can consider revising the state constitution to allow the legislature to adjust Census data for redistricting purposes, ensuring that prison populations do not add additional unwarranted political clout to the districts that contain them.

Massachusetts’s unique and forward-looking post-redistricting review process is a great opportunity to acknowledge and document the important progress that Committee on Redistricting has made towards ensuring fairness and transparency in the redistricting process. In addition to providing continuity over the decade between redistricting seasons, the report gives the legislature concrete goals to work towards for next time. With foresight and care, the current Massachusetts legislative districts can be the last ones that are distorted by the Census prison count.

June 25, 2012

Prison Policy Initiative and Demos logosFor Immediate Release: June 25, 2012

Dēmos Anna Pycior 212-398-1408
Prison Policy Initiative Peter Wagner 413-527-0845

Washington, DC – The U.S. Supreme Court today upheld the constitutionality of Maryland’s groundbreaking “No Representation Without Population Act,” which counts incarcerated people as residents of their legal home addresses for redistricting purposes. The 2010 law was a major civil rights victory that ended the distortions in fair representation caused by using incarcerated persons to pad the population counts of districts containing prisons.

The law upheld today is a state-based solution to the long-standing problem in the federal Census of counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison location, even though they cannot vote there and remain residents of their home communities for virtually all other legal purposes. The practice of prison-based gerrymandering particularly harms urban communities and communities of color that disproportionately contain the home residences of incarcerated persons. Other states have since passed similar laws, but the Maryland law was the only one to go to the Supreme Court.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision in Fletcher v. Lamone affirmed the constitutional ‘one person one vote’ foundation of our decade-old campaign to end prison-based gerrymandering,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative and the nation’s leading expert on how the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison locations harms the democratic process.

The lawsuit was filed last November, and the civil rights community responded quickly to brief the lower court on the constitutionality of Maryland’s law. In an amicus brief, the Prison Policy Initiative and Dēmos, along with the Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic, the ACLU of Maryland, the Maryland and Somerset County Branch NAACP, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund explained the basis and need for the landmark law. The lower court’s opinion, affirmed today, rejected the allegation that the law was somehow dilutive of minority voting rights, finding that the No Representation Without Population Act was an historic Maryland civil rights victory:

“As the amicus brief … makes clear, the Act was the product of years of work by groups dedicated to advancing the interests of minorities.”

Brenda Wright, Vice President for Legal Strategies at Dēmos, hailed today’s ruling in Fletcher v. Lamone: “The Supreme Court’s ruling is a huge victory for the national campaign to end prison-based gerrymandering. This decision sets an important precedent that will encourage other states to reform their redistricting laws and end the distortion in fair representation caused by treating incarcerated persons as residents of prisons.”

Today’s decision in Fletcher v. Lamone constitutes the most significant court ruling to date on the factual and legal justification for states to reallocate incarcerated persons to their home residences for purposes of redistricting. The ruling upheld today noted that “the Act is intended to ‘correct for the distortional effects of the Census Bureau’s practice of counting prisoners as residents of their place of incarceration.'” It further noted that

“These distortional effects stem from the fact that while the majority of the state’s prisoners come from African-American areas, the state’s prisons are located primarily in the majority white First and Sixth Districts. As a result, residents of districts with prisons are systematically ‘overrepresented’ compared to other districts.”

The plaintiffs in Fletcher challenged Maryland’s right to correct where incarcerated people are counted for the purpose of drawing congressional districts. “Congressional districts are held to the highest standards to ensure population equality.” said Brenda Wright of Dēmos. “The Court’s decision that Maryland’s law satisfies the strict standards applicable to congressional districts clears the path for other states to pass similar laws at all levels of government.” New York, Delaware and California have already enacted similar legislation, and advocates are calling on the Census Bureau for a national solution. “Today’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court affirming that Maryland’s law both meets constitutional requirements and was fairly implemented will hopefully encourage the Census Bureau to change its policy on where incarcerated people are counted in the 2020 Census” said the Prison Policy Initiative’s Peter Wagner.


by Peter Wagner, June 21, 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court meets today to decide whether it will hear a case challenging Maryland’s first-in-the-nation law ending prison-based gerrymandering. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce on Monday whether or not it will hear the case. If the Court decides to hear the case, oral arguments would be in the fall, with a decision in the winter or spring.

Plaintiffs are seeking to overturn a unanimous ruling by a federal three judge panel last December that rejected their lawsuit seeking to overturn Maryland’s landmark “No Representation Without Population Act,” which counts incarcerated people as residents of their legal home addresses for redistricting purposes.

The Maryland law addressed a long-standing problem in the federal Census that counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison location, even though they cannot vote and retain their pre-incarcerated residences. For decades, using unadjusted Census data diluted the vote of every Maryland resident who did not live near the prison complex in western Maryland, and had a particularly negative effect on African-American communities that experience disproportionate rates of incarceration.

In their opinion, the Judges noted that the No Representation Without Population Act they upheld was an important Maryland civil rights victory:

“As the amicus brief [filed by the Prison Policy Initiative, Dēmos, Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic, the ACLU of Maryland, the Maryland and Somerset County Branch NAACP, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund] … makes clear, the Act was the product of years of work by groups dedicated to advancing the interests of minorities.” (p. 20)

Other versions of Maryland’s law have since passed in New York, Delaware and California. Maryland was the only state to apply its law to congressional redistricting, and the first state to complete the process after passing a law. A separate lawsuit challenging New York’s law ending prison-based gerrymandering was dismissed in New York Supreme Court.

by Peter Wagner, June 20, 2012

I’m at the Campaign for America’s Future Conference in Washington D.C., where I was a finalist for the Maria Leavey Tribute award for my decade-long work to end prison-based gerrymandering. I’m here meeting with other activists about ways we can broaden the fight to keep the prison industrial complex from exercising undue influence on the political process.

It was a great honor to be nominated for this award as an “unsung progressive” hero, and an even greater honor to see so many of our allies work so hard to mobilize their supporters to vote for me. There was a flood of support on email, on Facebook, on Twitter and even from behind prison walls urging people to vote for me. Along the way, the Prison Policy Initiative made new allies and the movement to to end prison-based gerrymandering grew stronger.

The nomination was a huge victory, not just for me, but for the entire movement that we’ve built together.

Photo of Samantha Corbin's award acceptance speech

Yesterday afternoon, the Campaign for America’s Future announced that the winner of the Maria Leavey Tribune award was Samantha Corbin, a critical behind-the-scenes organizer of Occupy Wall Street and the Other 98%, which fights against the undue influence of big money in politics.

I congratulate Sam. It was a great honor to be a finalist alongside someone who has so successfully extended the debate about what progressive politics mean, and who so eloquently argues against a tendency in the progressive movement to segregate and marginalize issues not directly tied to partisan struggles.

And I thank all of the folks who voted for me and organized their networks to do so as well. I know that was a lot of work, and I think the effort was well worth it. As long-time readers of this blog know, prison-based gerrymandering was a once-obscure issue that at one time seemed intractable. We’ve built a strong movement that draws on the best that the criminal justice reform and electoral reform communities have to offer, and we’ve won some tremendous victories. And with this nomination, we affirmed our movement’s place on the national progressive agenda.

by Leah Sakala, June 11, 2012

James Kilgore and Teresa Barnes have written a great tribute to Jon E. Yount, a jailhouse lawyer and civil rights crusader, on the Dissent Magazine website.

In their piece, entitled “Jon Yount: A Man Transformed,” the authors highlight some of Jon’s major civil rights accomplishments, writing that,

his story provides confirmation of the irrationality of a criminal justice system that refuses to accept that individuals who have fallen can change dramatically and make important contributions to society.

Jon was on the Prison Policy Initiative Advisory Board, and as the article explains, he was the first person to link the harm from the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison location with vote dilution in state legislative districts.

To read more about this remarkable man and his work, check out Peter Wagner’s “In memory of Jon E. Yount (1938-2012)”, or check out our page of articles by and about Jon Yount.

by Peter Wagner, June 8, 2012

Kansas State House redistricting map

The federal judges drawing Kansas’s new state legislative maps have deftly saved the state from earning the “worst prison gerrymander” award for the 2010 cycle of state legislative redistricting. In a report released on May 28, shortly before the redistricting trial began, the Prison Policy Initiative and Dēmos warned that one of the proposed maps would have been the most dramatic instance of prison-based gerrymandering in any state legislative district in the nation. We urged the court to divide the prisons between multiple districts, and the federal judges did exactly that.

As Mary Sanchez explained in a March Kansas City Star column, the high concentration of prisons in the Leavenworth area gave Kansas legislators “the potential for shenanigans like no other state.” By padding districts with prison populations from other parts of the state or nation, state legislatures give extra influence to those districts and dilute the votes cast in all districts that contain the required number of actual residents. This problem is called prison-based gerrymandering.

As Brenda Wright and I argued in our report, the map proposed by the Kansas State House was particularly problematic because it took what was already one of the most extreme examples of prison-based gerrymandering in the nation and made it worse. Existing House District 40 contains a larger incarcerated population than any other district in the state, and includes all but one facility in the region. The House’s proposed map moved the federal prison – which contains people from all over the country – also into District 40.

The result would have been a legislative district with a greater portion of its population behind bars than any other state legislative district in the nation. If the proposed House plan had been adopted, every 4 residents of House District 40 would have been given the political influence of 5 residents in any other district.

A national movement has developed to fix the problem of prison-based gerrymandering. In fact, one of Kansas’s historical rivals for “worst prison-based gerrymander” award was Maryland, which has a huge concentration of prisons in the western portion of the state. But in 2010, Maryland was the first state to pass legislation counting incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes.

Ideally, the Census Bureau would count incarcerated people as residents of their home addresses, which would eliminate the problem of prison-based gerrymandering nation-wide and make the Bureau’s methodology more compatible with how state constitutions define residence for incarcerated people. Or Kansas could pass a law like those in Maryland, New York, Delaware and California that performs a state-based adjustment to the redistricting data. But these solutions could not be implemented in time for the redistricting at hand, so we urged the Court to use other techniques to minimize the vote-dilutive harm of prison-based gerrymandering. In our report, we explained:

“The best solution is for the Court simply to divide the prisons among multiple districts.”

And, we are happy to report, that is exactly what the federal judges did. Although the state house and many of the other parties in the case wanted the judges to implement the state house’s proposed map, the judges instead drew their own State House district map that split the Leavenworth area prisons into three pieces.

The military prison was put in House District 42, the federal prison in District 41 and the state and private facilities in District 40. It is true that this solution does not properly count incarcerated people in their home districts and it still gives the Leavenworth area disproportionate influence in state affairs, but it greatly reduces the concentration of unearned political power in any individual district. And, by extension, this solution greatly reduces the vote dilution in every other district in the state.

And for that, the people of Kansas have something to be very excited about.

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  • May 15, 2018:
    Our Policy Analyst Lucius Couloute will be at the LEDA Summit on Race and Inclusion in Holland, Michigan, presenting his research on the challenges and disadvantages people face when they are released from prison. Tickets are available on LEDA’s website.

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