Civil rights groups cite harm of prison-based gerrymandering

Three civil rights groups publish a guide to redistricting, focusing on issues facing minority communities.

by Aleks Kajstura, September 29, 2010

organizational logosCivil rights groups cite our work on prison-based gerrymandering in their new guide to redistricting. The groups, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund), the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), and the Asian American Justice Center (AAJC), a member of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, released “The Impact of Redistricting In Your Community: A Guide to Redistricting,” in time for upcoming redistricting efforts.

The guide is a basic, yet thorough, introduction to may issues in redistricting, including a section on prison-based gerrymandering. The guide explains:

A major issue with respect to the census and redistricting has been how and, more importantly, where prisoners are counted during the decennial census. Under residence rules that govern where people are counted in the decennial census, prisoners are counted at their places of incarceration on Census Day, not at
their home addresses. This becomes a significant problem in the context of redistricting because prisoners are not usually incarcerated in the same community as where they actually reside. This residence rule skews the balance of political power by inflating the population counts of communities where prisons are located by including the non-voting prison populations in these districts during the redistricting process.

While prison-based gerrymandering dilutes the votes of all residents who do not have prison in their district, the guide focuses on some of the harms specific to minority communities:

Over the last several decades, the percentage of Americans incarcerated in prisons has increased four-fold. Incarcerated persons are often held in areas that are geographically and demographically far removed from their home communities. For instance, although non-metropolitan counties contain only 20% of the national population, they host 60% of new prisons. In addition, because Latinos and African Americans are incarcerated at three to seven times the rate of Whites, where incarcerated people are counted has tremendous implications for how African-American and Latino populations are reflected in the census, and, consequently, how these communities are impacted through redistricting.

New York provides a stark example of how the census miscount of prisoners can distort political representation in the redistricting process. In New York, most of the state’s prisoners come from New York City (66%) but virtually all of them are
incarcerated upstate (91%), in a more rural and less populated region. When electoral districts are drawn, the prison population is included in the total population of the districts in which these prisons are located. Yet, in these districts, which host a large prison population, non-incarcerated residents do not share the prisoners’ concerns or interests. In addition, prisoners do not establish ties to these communities while they are incarcerated, and it is unlikely that ex-prisoners will remain in the community upon their release. Hence, the practice of including non-voting prisoners in the population of electoral districts where prisons are located provides distorted data of the actual residents who benefit from and are affected by the policies and programs in these districts.

The guide also include a discussion of the separate but releated problem of felon disenfranchisement. Felon disenfranchisement distorts the voting power of different communities within a single district. The guide includes an introduction to felon disenfranchisement’s role in the voting strength of minority communities:

The felon disfranchisement phenomenon diminishes the voting strength of entire minority communities, which are disproportionately plagued with concentrated poverty, sub-standard housing, limited access to healthcare and sub-standard education. Nationally, more than 5.3 million Americans are denied access to the right that is preservative of all other civil rights because of felony convictions. According to data released by the Census Bureau in 2006, of the estimated 2 million people living in prisons, roughly 60% are African-American and Latino.

The complete guide is available here.

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