Hint: It's not just Baltimore.

by Peter Wagner, December 23, 2010

With redistricting on the horizon, there have been a number of stories that discuss Maryland’s “No Representation Without Population” Act, passed last April, which will require that incarcerated people be counted at home for redistricting purposes. A number of the stories I read this week make the subtle but critical error of framing the discussion in terms of what Baltimore will gain from the new law at the expense of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

The reality of the bill’s passage was significantly more diverse than the articles imply:

  • The bill’s lead sponsors in both chambers had massive prisons in their districts.
  • The bill passed with bi-partisan support.
  • The bill passed with urban, rural and suburban support.
  • Senators of both parties with large prisons in their districts spoke on the floor about their support for the bill.
  • The Delmarva Daily Times on Maryland’s Eastern Shore editorialized in support of the bill multiple times, calling it a “Victory for Fairness.”

True, the people incarcerated in Maryland’s prisons disproportionately come from Baltimore. But given the number of districts in Baltimore, and the fact that Baltimore itself contains a large prison complex, the impact on any individual district or the city in total will be quite small.

The real winners of the new law are every single person who doesn’t live in District 2B next to a prison with almost 7,000 people temporarily incarcerated there. 18% of this district’s population was actually incarcerated residents from other parts of the state. Padding district 2B with the massive prison population meant that every group of 82 people near the prison could exercise the same political power as 100 people in any other district. That’s one of the injustices solved by the new law.

If you don’t live in District 2B, the “No Representation Without Population” Act is a big win for you. (And that’s not even addressing the law’s even more dramatic and positive impact on redistricting in rural counties like Somerset County.)

Cindy Boersma made the same points more succinctly in an April 17, 2010 letter to the Washington Post.

A rural newspaper reports that prison-based gerrymandering is not on the table for discussion. Will the public allow that to stand?

by Peter Wagner, December 22, 2010

Right as I was preparing a letter to every county board supervisor in every county in Wisconsin that contains a large prison, I saw an article from Jackson County Wisconsin that the county was not planning to debate prison-based gerrymandering:

My hunch is that county officials don’t know that avoiding prison-based gerrymandering is possible, so I fired off this letter to the editor in advance of the individual letters to county supervisors that will be mailed in early January:

Dear Editor,

The Jackson County Board will soon be debating redistricting, including the number and size of the districts. [“County board to debate reduction”, Dec 22] Your story reports that there are no discussions planned about to whether or not to include the prison populations in the districts. This should be debated.

The Census Bureau counts prisoners as residents of Jackson County, but under Wisconsin law, prisoners are not residents of the county. They aren’t allowed to vote, they don’t interact with the surrounding community, and any political needs they have for county government representation are ones that should be served by their home county.

If Jackson County uses the prison population to draw its districts, it will give the people who live near the prison more influence on the County Board than residents in other districts.

To their credit, the County Board decided ten years ago that drawing one district that was 96% prisoners would create a district with only a handful of voters, so they instead drew four districts that were each 24% prisoners. While an improvement, this still unfairly gives every group of 3 people who live near the prison as much influence as 4 residents in other districts.

The solution? Join more than 100 rural counties around the country and remove the prison population prior to redistricting. The county board should debate whether everyone, regardless of whether they live near a prison, deserves the same access to government.

Peter Wagner
Executive Director
Prison Policy Initiative
The writer is the author of Prison-based gerrymandering in Jackson County, Wisconsin and other reports.

Apportionment was not affected by the prison count. The prison count is largely a problem for districting within a state, not between states.

by Aleks Kajstura, December 21, 2010

Today, the Census Bureau announced the first data release of the 2010 Census: the population for every state. Today’s data reveals how many seats in Congress each state will receive. The drawing of those district lines, and lines for state, county and municipal legislatures must wait for the publication of block-level counts in a few months.

Apportionment is in the news because fast growing states will be getting additional seats, and states growing more slowly be will have lost seats.

Our work at the Prison Policy Initiative focuses on the repercussions of the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people as residents, not of their legal home addresses, but of the correctional facility. We focus mostly on the impact on rural city and county redistricting and on state legislative redistricting, where a single large prison can have a large effect on how the districts are drawn.

The release of today’s numbers raises the question: Did the transfer of people to federal, private and other correctional facilities across state lines impact apportionment?

Our review of the apportionment numbers, and our research on the flow of correctional populations across states lines says that in 2010, apportionment was not affected by the prison count. While 10 states gained seats in Congress and 8 states lost seats, the margin by which individual seats were gained or lost was smaller than the number of people transferred across state lines. The last seat in Congress went to Minnesota. North Carolina missed getting that seat by about 15,700 people, a margin far larger than the flow of prisoners in and out of those states.

This result is not surprising because most people in prison are incarcerated in their home state, so the Census Bureau’s prison miscount is largely a problem for districting within a state and less so for the distribution of political power between states.

Thanks to Andy Beveridge, Sam Brooke, Amanda Fox, Alex Friedmann, Craig Gilmore, Bob Libal, Carrie Ann Shirota, Sarah Walker, and the Bureau of Prisons for helping us collect the necessary data.

All the ways to end prison-based gerrymandering are spread across a handful of clicks.

by Peter Wagner, December 20, 2010

We’ve updated and reorganized our pages about the solutions to prison-based gerrymandering, including the legislation page with model, passed and proposed state and county legislation, and a technical memo about Using the Census Bureau’s Advanced Group Quarters Table.

The New York State Senate explains the state's prison-based gerrymandering problems, and highlights changes for the upcoming redistricting cycle.

by Aleks Kajstura, December 14, 2010

The New York State Senate explains the problems with prison-based gerrymandering in New York State, and what the State is doing about it this redistricting cycle.

Currently, the United States Bureau of the Census includes everyone housed in federal, state, and local correctional facilities in its count of the general population in the Census “block” (population unit) containing the prison facility. The state’s current reliance on the Census Bureau’s prison count data when drawing legislative districts could violate federal law in two ways: it dilutes minority voting strength in possible violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and it violates the one person, one vote principle of the 14th Amendment’s Equal protection Clause, which requires voting districts to have equal numbers of residents.

New York State’s reliance on the Census Bureau’s data for prison population also violates the New York State law in two ways: it runs afoul of the New York State Constitution, which states in Article 2, section 4 that, for the purpose of voting, “no person shall he deemed to have gained or lost a residence…while confined in any public prison;”

Similarly, subdivision 1 of section 5-104 of the New York Election Law directs that “[F] or the purpose of registering and voting “no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence…while confined in any public prison.”

Crediting the population of prisoners to the Census block where they are temporarily and involuntarily held creates electoral inequities at all levels of government. These electoral inequities are apparent in New York, where out of a prison population of approximately 60,000, over 75% of people in prison are people of color and over 70% are from urban communities. Urban communities including Albany, Buffalo, New York City, Rochester, and Syracuse are being shortchanged for purposes of redistricting in favor of rural communities, leading to vote dilution for urban communities of color across the state. This significant vote inflation in rural communities is compounded at the local levels, as most counties, cities, and towns use federal census data to draw their local legislative district and ward boundaries.

Until the Census Bureau provides the information necessary to allocate people in prison to their addresses prior to incarceration, the problem should be dealt with by the state. On August 11, 2010, Governor Paterson signed legislation sponsored by Senator Eric Schneiderman directing LATFOR to reallocate prison populations back to verifiable “homes of record” where the prisoner resided prior to his or her incarceration for state legislative and local governmental redistricting. LATFOR will obtain the prison count population data from the New York State Department of Correctional Services. See Chapter Laws of 2010, Chapter 57, Part XX.

The Prison Policy Initiative downloaded the above text from the NY State Senate website on December 14, 2010.

The Prison Policy Initiative joins a public call to the House leadership to pass Census oversight bill just passed by the U.S. Senate.

by Peter Wagner, December 12, 2010

On Friday, the Prison Policy Initiative joined the American Statistical Association and 26 other organizations in a letter to Congress in support of the Census Oversight Efficiency and Management Reform Act of 2010 (S. 3167/H.R. 4945).

The bill, which passed the Senate by unanimous consent on December 8, must pass the House quickly before the legislative session ends later this month. The bill would give the Census Bureau more independence and give the Census Bureau director a fixed 5 year term. This later reform would make it less likely that the Census Bureau would be without leadership shortly before a decennial Census is taken.

In our work to end prison-based gerrymandering, the Prison Policy Initiative has closely studied the Census Bureau and how it operates. Although this bill does not address our work in any way, it is obvious to us that the bill is good for the Census Bureau and the taxpayer, so we support its timely passage.

As the New York Times explained in yesterday’s editorial Census Showdown about the bill:

This bill deserves to become law. It would address problems — including unsteady management and political interference — that have long plagued the census. Among the reforms, it would strengthen the role of the Census Bureau director, who would report directly to the commerce secretary and be allowed to communicate views to Congress that are not necessarily those of the administration….

The House leadership should take charge, putting the census bill on the calendar so members can vote before the clock runs out. The White House, which has made bipartisanship its priority, should play a constructive role by signaling its support.

A new prison in Johnson County may bring prison-based gerrymandering 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.

Continue reading →

NACO article previews Census Bureau release of Advance Group Quarters File.

by Peter Wagner, December 2, 2010

CountyNews, published by the National Association of Counties has a new article that previews the Census Bureau’s data release schedule. The article, by director of research and outreach, Jacqueline Byers, includes a lengthy discussion of the Census Bureau’s Advanced Group Quarters file to be published in May 2011.

For the first time, the Census Bureau will be publishing their prison count data early enough that counties that wish to avoid padding individual districts with large prisons populations can use Census Bureau data to do so. Now counties, if they choose, can be sure that they are not drawing districts around prison populations and avoid unintentionally diluting the votes of everyone who doesn’t live immediately adjacent to a prison.

Read the whole article New Census Data Distribution Soon Underway.

The Brennan Center published an updated "Citizen's Guide to Redistricting" highlighting prison-based gerrymandering among redistricting challenges.

by Aleks Kajstura, December 1, 2010

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law published their 2010 edition of “A Citizen’s Guide to Redistricting.”

The guide is “updated and expanded to include recent court decisions as well as the latest changes to state and congressional redistricting processes across the country. This Guide will provide engaged citizens with the knowledge and tools they need to get involved with this round of redistricting, and to work towards continuing reform in the decades to come.”

The report includes issues of prison-based gerrymandering in the larger context of decennial redistricting and provides an excellent summary of the impact of the Census Bureau’s prison miscount on redistricting efforts:

Incarcerated individuals – disproportionately poor and minorities – are currently tallied by the Census Bureau for redistricting purposes where they are imprisoned. This artificially inflates the voting power of prison districts, where people in prison generally cannot vote and are not meaningfully represented, at the expense of their home communities. Incarcerated individuals should be counted for redistricting purposes in the communities where they lived before their incarceration, which Delaware, Maryland, and New York recognized in their 2010 laws adjusting the Census population counts for redistricting. Similar bills were introduced in Congress, and in at least six other states, during 2009 and 2010. Furthermore, though local governments rarely have jurisdiction over both prisons and home communities, many local governments will use a new Census prison dataset in the 2011 cycle to adjust the population they do control: people in prisons who should not be considered permanent local residents for redistricting purposes.

Podcast interview with Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel, NAACP LDF

by Peter Wagner, December 1, 2010

Host: Peter Wagner, Executive Director, Prison Policy Initiative

Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund

Recorded: June, 2010, Aired: November 2010


Peter Wagner:

Welcome to issues in prison-based gerrymandering, a podcast about keeping the Census Bureau’s prison count from harming our democracy. The Census Bureau counts people in prison as if they were actual residents of their prison cells, even though most state laws say that people in prison are residents of their homes. When prison counts are used to pad legislative districts, the weight of a vote starts to differ. If you live next to a large prison, your vote is worth more than one cast in a district without prisons. Prison-based gerrymandering distorts state legislative districts and has been known to create county legislative districts that contain more prisoners than voters. On each episode, we’ll talk with different voting rights experts about ways in which state and local governments can change the census and avoid prison-based gerrymandering.

Thank you for joining us, Dale. I was hoping you could introduce yourself and tell us about what you do at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and why the LDF is interested in addressing prison-based gerrymandering.

Continue reading →

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