The Utica New York Observer-Dispatch calls prison-based gerrymandering "absurd" and says their state senator and assemblywoman should support reform bills.

by Peter Wagner, February 26, 2010

The Utica New York Observer-Dispatch, is calling for their state senator and assemblywoman to support S6725/A9834 which would eliminate prison-based gerrymandering in state, county and municipal governments in the state. The paper calls prison-based gerrymandering “absurd” and “wrong”.

Read the editorial: Our view: Don’t count prisoners with voters. Redraw districts following 2010 Census to reflect true constituency published on Feb 26, 2010.

Or their previous coverage:

Minnesota Post says advocates are working to end prison-based gerrymandering in that state.

by Peter Wagner, February 25, 2010

Casey Selix writes about the importance of fixing the Census Bureau’s prison counts in Minnesota’s legislative districts in Census issue: when, where — and for what purpose — to count inmates

She quotes Prison Policy Initiative Legal Director Aleks Kajstura on why we are working in Minnesota on this issue with the Second Chance Coalition:

“We’re focusing on Minnesota for three reasons…. First, the Minnesota Constitution says that incarceration does not change a residence. Second, Minnesota has such a strong dedication to the principle of drawing equal districts, that only three other states have House districts that are more equal in population. Third, even though Minnesota has fewer people in prison than most states, there are still enough people being counted in the wrong place to violate the principles of democracy.”

Also quoted is Sarah Walker, a founder of the Second Chance Coalition, who explains why the Coalition is taking up the issue:

“There are so many people in prison today that it’s breaking our electoral system, punishing even people who have no involvement with the criminal justice system”

Keesha Gaskins, executive director of the League of Women Voters explains her rational as well:

“This is a democratic issue, with a small ‘d,’ ” she said. “This isn’t a huge partisan issue. It’s about what’s fair for citizens and what’s fair for prisoners.”

The article says that State Sen. Linda Higgins is working on a bill that would fix prison-based gerrymandering in the state.

I tell Congress it's important to count people in prison in the right place; I praise Census Bureau for making it easier to find prison populations in the data.

by Peter Wagner, February 25, 2010

Testimony of Peter Wagner
Executive Director, Prison Policy Initiative
Before the
Information Policy, Census, and National Archives Subcommittee of the
Oversight and Government Reform Committee
February 22, 2010

Thank you, Chairman Towns and Chairman Clay, for inviting me here today. I am Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization-based in Massachusetts. For the last decade, we have studied how the U.S. Census counts people in prison and worked to quantify the policy and legal implications flowing from those technical decisions.

Fairly and accurately counting the prison population matters. On Census day, there will be more than 2.3 million people behind bars in this country. That is a population larger than the 4th largest city in this county, larger than 15 individual states, and larger than the combined populations of our 3 smallest states. As this population disproportionately consists of African-American and Latino men, critical civil rights issues are at stake in a fair and accurate count of this population.

In this testimony I would like to explain some of the distortions in representation that result from the Census Bureau’s current practices regarding how incarcerated populations are counted, and the long-term changes that are needed to fully address the problem. At the same time, I would like to commend the Census Bureau for recently agreeing to an initial step that will provide more timely data to state and local governments that wish to make their own adjustments for a fairer and more accurate count.

Continue reading →

The Post-Standard in Syracuse, New York, has endorsed ending prison-based gerrymandering in New York State with a strong editorial:

by Peter Wagner, February 25, 2010

The Post-Standard in Syracuse, New York, has endorsed ending prison-based gerrymandering in New York State with a strong editorial:

Legislation would stop ‘prison-based gerrymandering’

By The Post-Standard Editorial Board
February 24, 2010

Cayuga County is the temporary home of more than 2,500 people who don’t want to live there. They live inside the state prisons in Auburn and Moravia and, as such, have little or nothing to do with county life and use few if any county services. All but a relative handful of them — 24 as of Jan. 1 — lived outside the county before they were sent off to prison.

Yet for the purposes of the U.S. Census, those inmates are considered Cayuga County residents. The Census numbers beef up the government aid the county receives and add to the county’s political clout because they are used when legislative districts are redrawn.

Both of those practices are unfair. Most of the inmates in Upstate prisons come from poor, urban communities. They have families in those communities and will eventually return to them — and use county services. Onondaga County, for example, has no state prisons, but currently has about 1,900 people serving time in prisons in other counties. That’s 1,900 people who will not be counted as Onondaga County residents in the Census.

Continue reading →

Hint: It's not urban people.

by Peter Wagner, February 24, 2010

I find it disturbing to see prison-based gerrymandering portrayed as an urban vs rural issue. Why? Because the practice of padding some legislative districts with large prisons dilutes the votes of everyone who does not live next to a large prison. Rural and urban communities suffer about the same.

True, urban communities should have been credited with their true population, but the way the math works out, they suffer almost the exact same vote dilution as rural communities that do not contain prisons.

Democracy is not a zero sum game, and when the data that democracy depends on is flawed, even those who benefit in one way lose in another. The residents of some state senate districts, for example, get extra representation when their leaders claim incarcerated people as residents; but they often suffer in local government. For example, most of the residents of Rome New York have less access to city government than they should, because half of one city council district is incarcerated people who are not from Rome.

There are additional harms that I’m not going to address fully in this post. For example, padding a district with incarcerated people distorts the priorities of the “benefiting” district, dis-aligning the priorities of the district’s representatives and its actual residents. But like I said, prison-based gerrymandering is not an urban vs. rural issue.

Editorial: if part-time residents can’t be counted at their second homes, consistency requires incarcerated people to be counted at home, not at the prison.

by Aleks Kajstura, February 19, 2010

In a recent editorial, “In new Census, home is where the vote should be,” the Times Herald-Record (Orange County, NY), examines the issue of prison-based gerrymandering in the larger context of voting and election law in New York State.

If it is not right to let a two-month bungalow colony resident vote in the Town of Bethel or the owner of a year-round vacation home vote in Taghkanic, then it should be even less acceptable to let thousands of people who cannot vote, who do not pay taxes, and who really would rather be somewhere else count toward the population of an Assembly, Senate or House district.

I don’t share the paper’s pessimism that we need litigation to resolve where incarcerated people should be counted, I think we can resolve this problem on the core principle of our democratic process: one person, one vote. Fairness, accuracy and the New York State Constitution demand that incarcerated people not be counted as constituents of politicians far from their home districts.

Note: The New York State Const. Article 2, Section 4 provides that “no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence, by reason of his presence or absence … while confined in any public prison.”

A prison doubles one city councilor's clout in Rome NY; and he expresses interest in fixing that unfair enhancement of his political influence.

by Peter Wagner, February 19, 2010

In Rome, New York, half of the 2nd City Council ward is incarcerated, giving the actual residents of the ward twice as much influence as residents from other wards.

The Prison Policy Initiative did the research [PDF], but the exciting part to me is what the councilor from the Second Ward told Jennifer Fusco of the Utica Observer-Dispatch:

As for looking at such a change in Rome, Councilor John Mortise, R-2, said he’s open to the possibility, but wants to learn more about it.

“I don’t foresee a problem, but I’d like to do my research on it,” he said.

Including prison populations in the city council wards was surely not a deliberate attempt to distort democracy. I doubt people noticed the prison at the time or knew that it was possible to do something else. It happened. The problem was exposed and solutions proposed. And now the councilor who benefited the most from the unfairly drawn wards wants to investigate further and fix it. I call that a good day for democracy.

Too often politics are more adversarial than they need to be, but every now and again you see an example where dedication to the idea of democracy trumps dedication to self. And when a society has enough leaders who put the group first, and can set up fair ways for all citizens to make decisions, it should find that solving big problems isn’t so overwhelming after all.

See the story:1/2 of Rome ward’s residents are prisoners: Group says inmates should be excluded when drawing district boundaries by Jennifer Fusco, Utica Observer-Dispatch Feb 18, 2010.

by Elena Lavarreda, February 18, 2010

Bob Paquette of WFCR Amherst, MA recently conducted a compelling interview with Peter Wagner about the fast-approaching Census count, and the problem posed by counting inmates as residence of their prison cell, rather than the place they came from prior to sentencing.

by Aleks Kajstura, February 18, 2010

In “Counting prisoners is an issue for us all,” Mary Sanchez, of the Kansas City Star, writes that “elected officials wind up with constituents to whom they don’t have to answer at the ballot box.”

In all but two states, felons in prison can’t vote. So the standard of one person, one vote is distorted by building legislative districts based on head counts of people who can’t cast ballots, and where many only temporarily live via a prison sentence.

Recently, the Census Bureau announced that it will release data on group quarters, which include prisons, earlier than usual – in May 2011. This new data will give state and local governments the choice to account for their prison populations when drawing district lines for the next decade.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, chairman of the Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census & National Archives, led the charge for the change. …

“The impact of this decision is enormous. States and local governments will now have the opportunity to do the right thing and prevent the overrepresentation of areas where prisons are located,” according to Clay.

The operative words are “have the opportunity.” States don’t have to do anything after the prison counts by the census are released in May 2011.

But they ought to do what upholds democracy.

We have to stop framing census reform as a zero-sum game of funding. It's a democracy issue about the state constitution, and its an issue where almost everyone has something to gain from reform. Partisan and regional conflict makes for great press, but it's not going to build a better society.

by Peter Wagner, February 16, 2010

Professor Jamie Baker Roskie asks on the Land Use Prof Blog if there is a solution to the urban/rural and black/white split over how the Census Bureau should count incarcerated people. Introduced to the issue by an NPR story that (with the help of partisans in both places) sets the issue as a fight over limited resources, she asks if “some happy medium can be found”.

It’s a great question, and the answer is easy:

We have to stop framing census reform as a zero-sum game of funding. It’s a democracy issue about the state constitution, and its an issue where almost everyone has something to gain from reform. Partisan and regional conflict makes for great press, but it’s not going to build a better society.

See my comment on her post for my full explanation.

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