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Implementing Reform: How Maryland & New York Ended Prison Gerrymandering

by Bernadette Rabuy, August 20, 2014

report thumbnailNew York Law School professor Erika L. Wood and Dēmos recently released a report, Implementing Reform: How Maryland & New York Ended Prison Gerrymandering. In her report, she shares how Maryland and New York corrected the Census Bureau prison miscount. The Bureau counts incarcerated individuals as if they were residents of their prison cells even though most states bar incarcerated people from voting and most state constitutions and statutes say that a prison cell is not a residence.

As the executive summary in Erika Woods’ excellent report says:

In 2010 and 2011, Maryland and New York took bold steps to correct the problem known as prison gerrymandering, a problem resulting from the United States Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated individuals as residents of their prison cells rather than their home communities. When legislative districts are drawn based on the census numbers, incarcerated individuals become “ghost constituents” of districts that contain prisons. Although in forty-eight states incarcerated individuals cannot vote, have no ties to the local community, are often hundreds of miles from home, and spend an average of just three years in prison, they are allocated to legislative districts in a way that artificially inflates the political power of the districts where the prisons are located, while their home communities—often predominantly poor and minority—suffer the inverse effects of losing representation and voting strength for a decade.

Although the Census Bureau did not change its practice of counting incarcerated individuals in prison on a national level for the 2010 census, Maryland and New York took responsibility for correcting this injustice in their states. In doing so, these two states not only conducted an important experiment in policy innovation, but also demonstrated how various state and local agencies can work together to successfully implement new and important policy reforms to alleviate the problem of prison gerrymandering.

The efforts and coordination by state policymakers, corrections officials, data experts, technicians, planning personnel and lawyers was exemplary and should serve as an inspiration to those across the country who want to take a stand to end this injustice. As a result of their efforts and for the first time in history, the legislative and local districts in Maryland and New York are no longer distorted by prison gerrymandering.

This report provides detailed information about the specific steps Maryland and New York took to implement these new laws based on the 2010 census in conjunction with their redistricting schedules. It details the challenges each state faced as the first in the country to implement this reform—including legal disputes and data deficiencies—and the steps taken to meet and overcome those challenges. It also provides concrete recommendations, based on the experience and expertise of the actors in each state, to assist other jurisdictions in permanently ending prison gerrymandering.

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