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Prison gerrymandering gives extra political power to legislators who have prisons in their districts. We put numbers on the problem and sparked a movement to protect our democratic process from the overgrown prison system.

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—Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

Hypocrisy on prison-based gerrymandering in Illinois

ChicagoNow calls out downstate politicians for hypocrisy, comparing their voting records to claims that they actually represent incarcerated people's interests.

by Peter Wagner, June 6, 2010

Angela Caputo of ChicagoNow

analyzed the voting records of lawmakers representing Illinois’ 21 most inmate-heavy House districts. Of the two-dozen bills analyzed, the Reporter found:

  • Six House members representing the state’s 21 most inmate-heavy districts voted at least two-thirds of the time against legislation around ex-offender jobs and education;
  • Eight voted against those same measures at least half of the time;
  • And, only one House member signed on as a co-sponsor to a piece of ex-offender legislation.”

That’s great research about one part of the hypocrisy of defending prison-based gerrymandering in Illinois. Caputo identifies the leading opponent of reform:

Among the chief opponents is Republican state Rep. Ron Stephens from Highland whose district includes Fayette County’s Vandalia Correctional Center.

I wrote in a comment on the article about another kind of hypocrisy:

Rep. Ford’s bill is not about funding. The bill is about creating one consistent policy state-wide for how legislative districts should be drawn. Should legislators draw districts around prisons and grant enhanced representation to the people who live next to prisons?

For state legislative purposes, Rep. Ron Stephens says yes. But his own constituents in Vandalia City, Fayette County, and 9 other rural counties with prisons and 4 other rural Illinois cities all disagree.

When those 15 rural places last drew their county and city legislative districts they choose reject the Census Bureau’s prison count and draw fair districts on the basis of actual population. In some of these places, doing things Rep. Stephens’ way would have meant giving some residents twice the influence over the future of their counties as other residents. If these counties can reject the Census Bureau’s prison count, so to should the state.

Writing that comment I couldn’t help but think of Elena Lavarreda’s recent post:

Often, the biggest proponents of maintaining prison-based gerrymandering are state legislative officials with prisons in their districts. The extra population, which can’t vote, leaves fewer real constituents to be responsible to. Many times, the advantage brought by prison-based gerrymandering at the state legislative level is large enough to fight for, but not so big that one looks unreasonable to fight for it. These officials have the luxury of crafting specious arguments in defense of prison-based gerrymandering because the impact is comparatively small.

County officials, however, do not have the same luxury. Their county board districts tend to be smaller, so a single large prison could be the majority of the district. Granting some people who live near a prison more than twice the influence than others over their government simply doesn’t make sense. That’s why every county but one which has had to grapple with prison-based gerrymandering has rejected the practice, and excluded the prisoners when drawing their districts.

3 responses:

  1. Brian Kinney says:

    I live in Rep. Ron Stephens’ district and I and many others agree with him. Prisons have been placed in rural districts because the larger cities have not wanted them “in their back yards”. The inmates are residing in those counties. Count them their. The roads, bridges, and all other infrastructure are being used by those inmates as well as those who watch, feed, and house them. If the people above I-80 want their son’s and daughter’s counted in their districts, don’t send them to prison.

  2. Peter Wagner says:

    Thanks for writing, Brian.

    I’m not sure if you are in Vandalia City or Fayette County. Do you disagree with the decision of those governments to ignore the prison population when drawing local districts? Should the people who live near the prison have almost twice the influence over county affairs as people who live elsewhere in the county?

    Do you think that Vandalia City should have based its City Council districts on the prison population? If they had, the people who lived next to the prison would have had 5 times as much influence on the city council as all other city residents.

    I think Vandalia City and Fayette County have the right idea, and they should get credit for coming up with that solution on their own, without help from the Census Bureau or the state. In my view, the state should follow the lead the rural counties.

    Let’s talk some more, either here, or perhaps you could be a guest on a future podcast?

  3. […] of that district more influence on the county board than their neighbors. Peter Wagner has also remarked on the irony that some of the state legislators who support prison-based gerrymandering represent rural counties […]



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