Peter Wagner speaks with Cindy Boersma of the ACLU about Maryland's new law to count incarcerated people at their home addresses for redistricting purposes.

by Peter Wagner, May 27, 2010

Host: Peter Wagner, Executive Director, Prison Policy Initiative

Guest: Cindy Boersma, Legislative Director of the ACLU of Maryland
May, 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.

Continue reading →

Two bills to create non-partisan redistricting commissions include a clause that will require incarcerated people to be counted at home.

by Peter Wagner, May 27, 2010

New York State Senator Martin Malavé Dilan (D-Brooklyn) has proposed two alternative reforms of the redistricting process in New York State. Senate bill 7881 and Senate bill 7882 change the composition of the redistricting committee that actually draws the lines, among other changes.

Notable for readers of this blog is that both bills require that:

The whole number of persons reported in the federal decennial census shall be the basis for determining populations for the purposes of this article, except that, for the purpose of determining the popu lations of senate and assembly districts, no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence by reason of conviction and incarceration in a federal or state correctional facility.

Because these bills are only directed at state redistricting, they would have no effect on prison-based gerrymandering in county and city governments; but it is positive to see the legislature include prison-based gerrymandering alongside that of partisan gerrymandering.

For more information, see Senator Dilan’s press release: Senator Dilan Proposes Practical and Realistic Framework for Reforming New York’s Redistricting Process.

A rural TV station trips over a bad fact and misses a chance to praise its home county.

by Elena Lavarreda, May 25, 2010

The unfortunate and inaccurate article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that we blogged about several weeks ago has claimed another victim. Like WALB-TV, in Calhoun County Georgia, Channel 41 WMGT, in Macon County Georgia, has fallen for the same misleading arguments. The irony is that both of these counties already reject the Census Bureau’s prison counts for internal county districting. In practice, they are leaders, not opponents, of Census reform.

The WMGT piece repeats the same misguided funding based arguments that both WALB-TV and The AJC make.

Macon County leaders knew when Macon State Prison was built in 1993, it would boost the local economy bringing in almost 400 jobs. One perk they didn’t think about—a boost in population for census data. Population counts from the U.S Census help determine how $400 billion in federal money is spent each year on road projects, schools, hospitals and more.

Peter elaborates on why this funding argument for counting the prisoners at the prison location is just wrong. In the blog post he wrote in response to the AJC story, he states:

Actually, much of the so-called “population-based” aid is not distributed directly to local areas, and most government aid formulas are too sophisticated to be fooled by where people in prison are counted. Medicaid reimbursements and federal highway finds are block grants to states, so it doesn’t matter where in a state a prisoner is counted as long as he is counted in the correct state.

In short, Macon County is not getting rich from the Census Bureau’s prison count.

Unfortunately, this “bad news” story about Macon County merely distracts from the potential “good news” story for this rural county—the fact that Macon County already takes the prisoners out of their districts!

Similar to Calhoun County, Macon County is actually the “good guy” in the Census story. They accepted a prison in their county, for the perceived jobs benefits, but they drew local governmental districts without regard to the prison populations. They instead looked to state law, which says that a prison is not a residence and ignored the prison population when drawing county and city districts. Macon chose not to draw a district that was 25% prisoners. The state should be so enlightened.

With the next round of redistricting on the horizon, this type of action needs to be encouraged. The issue is particularly critical in Macon County because in 2000 the Census made a mistake and only counted half the state prison—if Macon decided to include the prisoners this time the harm to democracy would be twice as large.

Macon County will be faced with a tough question: Should the people who live next to the Macon State Prison have twice as much influence over the future of the county as people who live in other parts of the county? I hope that Macon will again so “No”, but this funding myth runs the risk of undoing the good work that Macon has already done.

Justin Levitt of the Brennan Center and Peter Wagner discuss model legislation to end prison-based gerrymandering.

by Peter Wagner, May 20, 2010

Host: Peter Wagner, Executive Director, Prison Policy Initiative

Guest: Justin Levitt, Counsel, Brennan Center for Justice
May, 2010


Peter Wagner:

Welcome to Issues in Prison-Based Gerrymandering: a podcast about keeping the Census Bureau’s prison count from harming our democracy.

Continue reading →

Many of the elected officials who oppose Census reform should be supporting it.

by Peter Wagner, May 18, 2010

To my frustration, prison-based gerrymandering is sometimes portrayed as an upstate vs. downstate, urban vs. rural, Republican vs. Democratic issue. Some of the enthusiasm for reform is unfortunately partisan, but this need not be a partisan issue. Here are 8 reasons why our opponents should be supporting ending prison-based gerrymandering, no matter if they are Republican or Democratic, urban or rural, from upstate or downstate. –Peter Wagner

  1. No federal or state funding program will be affected by revising the redistricting data.
  2. The New York State Constitution says that a prison cell is not a residence: “no person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence, by reason of his or her presence or absence … while confined in any public prison.” Art II, § 4. When they take office, legislators swear an oath to uphold the Constitution of the State of New York. Art XIII, § 1.
  3. The overwhelming majority of NY counties with large prisons already reject the prison counts for internal redistricting. In these districts, every time the public learns that prison populations are being used to distort districts, they insist on reform. The one time a county legislature — St. Lawrence County — ignored the public outcry and gerrymandered districts around prisons, the county majority lost the next election. Further, two additional jurisdictions that included the prison populations in local districts, Oneida County and the City of Rome, are expected to remove the prison populations prior to districting even if the Schneiderman/Jeffries bill does not pass. A total 13 New York counties currently reject the Census Bureau prison count and draw fair districts. The trend is clear: upstate counties do not think that incarcerated people are residents of their counties.
  4. Upstate papers, including the Times Herald-Record (Middletown NY), Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY) and Observer-Dispatch (Utica, NY) have all called for an end to prison-based gerrymandering. The Observer-Dispatch said that “figuring those prisoners into the mix when voter representation is determined is absurd” and the Times Herald-Record said that “a politician should be embarrassed to claim that people held in prisons should count as constituents.”
  5. Changing where incarcerated people are counted will not mean eliminating your district and transferring it to New York City. New York Senate districts each contain more than 306,000 people each. The total prison population is far smaller than a single district, and both the total prison population and the portion that is from New York City has shrunk over the last decade. Ten years ago, the state had 71,466 people in prison with 66% from New York City. Today, the prison population is down to 58,000 with only 50% being from the city.
  6. The issue of prison closures should not be confused with the issue of where incarcerated people should be counted. The Governor wants to close a number of upstate prisons in the next few years, but this issue is entirely separate from the Census. The question of whether the state needs those facilities and what kind of alternative investments the state should be making upstate are entirely unrelated to the question of where incarcerated people are counted.
  7. Some Republicans have justified continuing prison-based gerrymandering because they don’t trust the new Democratic majority to treat them fairly during redistricting. Claiming incarcerated people as constituents to get an extra 1% population is not worth ceding the ability to criticize the other sides’ dirty tricks at redistricting time. If the minority party wants to ensure it is treated fairly, it should seek the moral high ground.
  8. Using prison populations to pad districts has large effect on New York’s districts, but the numbers were even more dramatic in Maryland. Yet, their “No Representation Without Population Act” passed with bi-partisan support from urban and rural areas. Both lead sponsors (who were Democrats) and some of the rural Republican Senators who voted for the bill had large prisons in their districts. Self-interest and partisan bickering did not come in to play. Annapolis Maryland’s The Capital asked Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk why she sponsored the bill despite the large prisons in her district: “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “To me, it is just a fair way to count.”

If you like this article, it is also available in fact sheet form.

The Honolulu Advertiser highlights how the Census Bureau's decision to credit Hawaiian prisoners to mainland prisons hurts the Hawaiian count.

by Peter Wagner, May 17, 2010

Michael Tsai has a lengthy article in the Honolulu Advertiser that Hawaii prisoners held on Mainland skew census results. I’m quoted, as is Momi Fernandez, director of the Data and Information/Census Information Center at the Native Hawaiian advocacy group Papa Ola Lōkahi.

The article draws some research from the Hawaii section of our 50-state report Fixing prison-based gerrymandering after the 2010 Census.

Close readers of this blog may be surprised by the article’s emphasis on a funding impact from where people in prison are counted. Normally, we argue the Census Bureau’s prison miscount has very little impact on funding. Most federal aid is block grants to states, and most people in prison are incarcerated in their home state. Hawaii is a bit of an exception because it ships so many people to other states, so it does lose some Medicaid and Highway funding.

From my perspective, though, the largest impact is probably the effect on the redistricting process.

Given the concentration of Native Hawaiians in that state’s criminal justice system, accurately counting Hawaii’s prison population is critical for electoral fairness and statistical planning. Because the Census Bureau does not collect the necessary data, I don’t know exactly where the state’s incarcerated people are from and I can’t predict exactly how the prison miscount hurts Native Hawaiians in that state. But I can show the harm caused at the other end of the prison count, as the article explains:

Census reform advocates also argue that large concentrations of prisoners — particularly in the small, rural communities where prisons-for-rent have proliferated in recent years — compromise the integrity of census data and raise threat of gerrymandering during district reapportionment.

In the 2000 census, prisoners from Hawai’i unknowingly played a part in just such a scenario.

According to census data, Native Hawaiians accounted for roughly half of the resident population of Appleton township in Swift County, Minn. — because of a contract between the state of Hawai’i and the Corrections Corporation of America, which operated the district’s Prairie Correctional Facility.

Peter Wagner, founder of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, said counting Hawai’i prisoners as residents of the district surrounding the prison artifically inflated the area’s population profile for redistricting purposes and unfairly weighted the influence of district voters in county governance.

The city of Danville, Illinois already rejects the idea of using prison populations to draw city districts. Its state and its county should follow suit.

by Peter Wagner, May 17, 2010

The Danville, Illinois Commercial-News is reporting that Loss of prisoners would hurt city. I sent the below letter to the editor which explains that the bill in question would not apply to funding, and I report for the first time that Danville is among the rural Illinois cities that already reject the Census Bureau’s prison count for their own internal redistricting.–Peter Wagner

Your article Loss of prisoners would hurt city [May 15, 2010] says that the Prisoner Census Adjustment Act [HB4650] would cost Danville funds. The bill, which died this session but I hope will be reintroduced in a different form, does not apply to funding.

It merely changes the redistricting data so that state and local governments can draw fair districts based on the actual legal residence of the population. The bill would bring fairness and consistency to redistricting.

The City of Danville already rejected the Census Bureau’s prison count when drawing its local districts after the last Census. The city was right that drawing a district that was 40% prisoners would be unfair to residents in other parts of the city.

Danville is not alone in rejecting the Census Bureau’s prison count. Ten Illinois counties and 4 other Illinois cities do the same.

But both the state legislative districts and the Vermilion County Board are based on prison populations. Using prisoners to pad one Vermilion County Board district dilutes the votes of the residents of the other districts by about 20%.

A state bill to create one consistent dataset for use in redistricting is the best way to go. Everyone should have the same access to government regardless of whether she lives next to a large prison.

Peter Wagner
Executive Director
Prison Policy Initiative
The writer is co-author of Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Illinois, a district-by-district and county-by-county analysis of how the Census Bureau’s prison counts distort democracy.

Example text of a state bill to end prison-based gerrymandering.

by Peter Wagner, May 13, 2010

In consultation with Demos, the Brennan Center for Justice, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and our other allies, we’ve developed some new model legislation for states that wish to avoid prison-based gerrymandering in the next and future rounds of redistricting. We’ve also included some annotations to help adapt the model to your state.

Could a simple misunderstanding, and not self-interest, be at the root of Delegate Shank's opposition to No Representation Without Population law?

by Peter Wagner, May 12, 2010

The only opponent to Maryland’s new “No Representation Without Population” law that will count prisoners for redistricting purposes as residents of their home, not prison, addresses, is Delegate Christopher Shank. Eighteen percent of his current district’s population is incarcerated. This is the largest example of prison-based gerrymandering in a state legislative district yet identified.

But I wonder if a simple misunderstanding, and not self-interest, could be at the root of Delegate Shank’s opposition to the new law. Two weeks ago, Annapolis’s The Capital described Delegate Shank’s opposition:

House Minority Whip Christopher Shank, R-Washington, said inmates in western Maryland often have sentences stretching into decades…. “(Inmates) are in there for a long time.”

Delegate Shank may be confusing the prison buildings and his constituents who work there, with the prisoners. The prison buildings that he drives past will be there for a long time, but the people inside will not. I can’t find the equivalent figure for Maryland, but the typical state prisoner will be home in 34 months.(source)

Incarcerated people are just passing through Delegate Shank’s district, they are not a part of the communities that he represents, so they should not be credited to those communities at districting time.

New Maryland law says that districts with prisons should not get an unfair advantage over other districts.

by Peter Wagner, May 11, 2010

An Associated Press story is appearing around the county about the new Maryland law that will count incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes.

The story, Lawmakers fight for who gets to count inmates is a fine introduction to the controversy, and I’d like to expand on why this is not an urban vs. rural dispute:

  • The biggest beneficiary of the bill is not Baltimore, which most people in prison call home, but each and every district that does not have a large prison. District 2B, represented by Delegate Shanks, is 18% incarcerated, giving every group of 82 people in that district as much influence as 100 people in any other district. If you don’t live in House District 2B, the law benefits you.
  • The two lead sponsors of the bill, Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore, and Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk, D-Prince George’s, both have large prisons in their districts, but they saw larger issues of fairness at stake.
  • The bill passed with bi-partisan support, including from Senator Munson (R-District 2, which includes House District 2B).
  • As the article says, a big part of why the bill passed was because it would bring fairness to rural county redistricting. That argument won the support of Senator Stoltzfus (R-District 38), who spoke on the floor about why he was going to vote yes:

    I’m gonna vote for this bill, its drawn largely to effect because of my district, we have a large prison in one election district in Somerset county and the population of that prison are counted toward that election district which gives an unfair advantage because it was designed to be a minority election district and unfortunately the history is, in Somerset county is not one that I’m proud of. We have a large minority population that’s not minority its 45 % and there are no minorities represented on the county council. This is a bill that needs to pass. I was first concerned about whether the census formula, census driven formulas would be affected and we have determined that they certainly are not, this only applies to elections, and so I think its the right thing to do having witnessed it first hand in Somerset county, its the right thing to do, so I’m gonna vote for this bill, thank you Mr. President.”

Unfortunately, Delegate Shank, who is quoted in the article, is still tilting at windmills.

However, Maryland House Republican whip Chris Shank, whose rural Washington County district is home to three prisons with an inmate population of roughly 6,300, said Maryland’s law will leave communities like his with fewer representatives and give even more to Baltimore.

“It’s blatantly untrue to say the prisoners don’t have an impact on our district,” Shank said. “They most certainly impact our medical resources based on trips to hospitals and dentists’ offices. They have a tremendous impact on our judicial system, the number of court filings, the workload of our state attorney’s office.”

That prisoners have an impact on his district is not in dispute. Their presence gives people jobs, and when a prisoner needs to go to the dentist, state — not local — taxpayers — get the bill. The question is whether they are residents of his district and should be represented in that district. The state of Maryland said “No”.

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