Virginia bill allowing more counties to avoid prison-based gerrymandering passes Senate unanimously, goes on to Governor for signature.

by Peter Wagner, February 24, 2012

The morning, the Virginia Senate unanimously passed HB 13, which would allow more counties to avoid prison-based gerrymandering. I submitted testimony in support of the bill this on Tuesday.

HB13 fixes a quirk in Virginia law that requires counties with large prisons to engage in prison-based gerrymandering. These counties must use Census Bureau prison counts to draw county supervisory districts, thereby granting undue influence to the districts that have prisons and diluting the votes of residents in all other supervisory districts in the county. Prior to 2001, all Virginia counties were required to engage in prison-based gerrymandering; but that year Virginia amended the law, giving some counties — if their total incarcerated population was at least 12% of the total county population — the option to exclude prison populations for redistricting purposes. Counties with slightly smaller prison populations were still required to use the prison populations to dilute the votes of other county residents.

HB 13 would give any county with a single district that’s 12% or more incarcerated the opportunity to avoid prison-based gerrymandering.

The bill, which earlier this month unanimously passed the House, now goes on to the Governor for signature. In an editorial last month, the Roanoke Times editorial board declared that HB 13 “would move the commonwealth in the right direction” towards ending prison-based gerrymandering.


Virginia bill allowing more counties to avoid prison-based gerrymandering passes Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections.

by Peter Wagner, February 21, 2012

This afternoon, the Virginia Senate Privileges and Elections Committee unanimously passed HB 13, which would allow more counties to avoid prison-based gerrymandering. I submitted testimony in support of the bill this morning.

HB13 fixes a quirk in Virginia law that requires counties with large prisons to engage in prison-based gerrymandering. These counties must use Census Bureau prison counts to draw county supervisory districts, thereby granting undue influence to the districts that have prisons and diluting the votes of residents in all other supervisory districts in the county. Prior to 2001, all Virginia counties were required to engage in prison-based gerrymandering; but that year Virginia amended the law, giving some counties — if their total incarcerated population was at least 12% of the total county population — the option to exclude prison populations for redistricting purposes. Counties with slightly smaller prison populations were still required to use the prison populations to dilute the votes of other county residents.

HB 13 would give any county with a single district that’s 12% or more incarcerated the opportunity to avoid prison-based gerrymandering.

In an editorial last month, the Roanoke Times editorial board declared that HB 13 “would move the commonwealth in the right direction” towards ending prison-based gerrymandering. Clearing the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee brings the bill, and the Commonwealth, one step closer to that goal.


Ending prison-based gerrymandering in Oregon would bring the state's redistricting process in line with both the state constitution and with the federal principle of "one person, one vote."

by Leah Sakala, February 16, 2012

Common Cause Report Cover

A new report released by Common Cause Oregon recommends ending prison-based gerrymandering as a critical step for improving Oregon‘s redistricting process. Ending prison-based gerrymandering in Oregon would bring the state’s redistricting process in line with both the state constitution and with the federal principle of “one person, one vote.”

The report shows that prison-based gerrymandering is especially problematic for the City of Pendleton:

The City of Pendleton in Umatilla County provides an Oregon example of the negative effect on democracy of claiming incarcerated people as constituents of the prison location. The Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution is 28 percent of a Pendleton city council district, giving every 3 residents of the ward with the prison the political power of 4 residents in other parts of the city. Department of Corrections statistics show that virtually everyone incarcerated at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution comes from other parts of the state.

The solution is clear:

Common Cause Oregon recommends legislative action to end prison gerrymandering in 2021 by excluding prisoners in redistricting unless the Census Bureau changes its policy of counting prisoners where they are confined in its 2020 count.


Incarcerated people are not part of the communities in which they are confined, and data that assumes otherwise can have unforeseen negative effects.

by Leah Sakala, February 16, 2012

We generally focus on how the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison, rather than of their home addresses, causes problems for electoral redistricting. But while prison-based gerrymandering may be the biggest problem caused by the Census Bureau’s prison miscount, it certainly isn’t the only one.

More and more examples keep popping up across the country, all with a common thread: incarcerated people are not part of the communities in which they are confined, and relying on data that assumes otherwise creates unforeseen problems.

A common response is to chase the symptom and change a state law or municipal code every time a community with a prison is faced with an absurd result. In my view, the ideal solution is for the Census Bureau to respond to shifting social data needs by counting incarcerated people at home. In the meantime, though, I thought it might be useful to gather together in one place some of the examples I’ve found of non-redistricting problems with the Census Bureau’s prison count:

  1. Raising costs for building inspector administration and public safety assessments:
    In 2010 the Maine State Prison was relocated to the town of Warren, Maine, raising the town’s official 2010 Census Bureau population by more than 900 people and pushing it over the 4,000 mark that mandates the enforcement of the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code and increases the town’s dispatch fees. As the Warren Code Enforcer Bill O’Donnell pointed out, “Counting inmates in the town’s population is a grave mistake and poses undue hardship for the residents of our community.” In response, state Representative Wes Richardson introduced legislation to exclude the incarcerated population from the town’s official count. The bill, LD 1697, passed the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee unanimously on February 9.
  2. Creating expensive voting precincts for people who are not permitted to vote:
    Massachusetts state law prohibits any single voting precinct in the state from exceeding a maximum size. While this good way to ensure that all citizens can access the polls on election day, towns with large prisons suddenly found themselves in a difficult position when figuring out how many precincts to draw because their official populations are inflated by incarcerated populations that are prohibited from voting. In order to avoid having to create, staff, and pay for a voting precinct for people who can’t vote, four towns with large prisons (Harvard, Lancaster, Middleton, and Shirley) have each needed special legislation to exempt themselves from the requirement.
  3. Being forced to adopt expensive recycling systems without having sufficient recycleables:
    The 3,717 residents of Kelly, Pennsylvania ran into a quandary when the 2010 Census included a large Federal prison in the township’s official population count, reporting 5,500 people in Kelly. This suddenly made the township responsible for enforcing a 1988 Pennsylvania statute that mandates curbside recycling for areas with large or dense populations. Not only would the unnecessary curbside program be costly for Kelly, but the township wouldn’t even be allowed to take over the prison’s federally-run recycling system if it wanted to.
  4. Continue reading →


The New York Court of Appeals today declined to hear plaintiffs' direct appeal in Little v. LATFOR.

February 14, 2012

For Immediate Release: February 14, 2012

For more information, please contact:
Brennan Center for Justice Erik Opsal (646) 292-8356 erik.opsal@nyu.edu
Center for Law & Social Justice April Silver (718) 756-8501 pr@akilaworksongs.com
Dēmos Anna Pycior (212) 389-1408 apycior@demos.org
LatinoJustice Madeline Friedman (212) 739-7581 mfriedman@latinojustice.org
NAACP Legal Defense Fund Mel Gagarin (212) 965-2783 mgagarin@naacpldf.org
NYCLU Michael Cummings (212) 607-3300 x368 mcummings@nyclu.org
Prison Policy Initiative Peter Wagner (413) 527-0845

The New York Court of Appeals today declined to hear plaintiffs’ direct appeal in Little v. LATFOR, a lawsuit challenging New York’s law ending prison-based gerrymandering. The plaintiffs — who include upstate elected officials who would no longer unjustly benefit from claiming incarcerated people as residents of their districts — had sought to skip the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division and go directly to the Court of Appeals.

In December, New York Supreme Court Justice Eugene Devine ruled that the law was constitutional. Plaintiffs’ appeal will now proceed to the Appellate Division Third Department.

Attorneys for the 15 voters from around New York State who joined the suit as intervenor-defendants issued the following joint statement:

“Today’s decision leaves in place New York’s law ending prison-based gerrymandering, which advances fairness in redistricting and is in complete agreement with New York’s state constitution. The opponents of this law lost the policy debate in the legislature, and their efforts to reinstate the old unjust practice of prison-based gerrymandering have so far been unsuccessful in the courts. We look forward to defending this vital law at the appellate division.”

The organizations representing the fifteen voters in court were the Brennan Center for Justice, the Center for Law & Social Justice, Dēmos, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Prison Policy Initiative.

About Prison-Based Gerrymandering

There are dramatic examples of prison-based gerrymandering in upstate counties and cities. For example, half of a council ward in the city of Rome, New York is incarcerated. As a result, the actual residents of that ward wield twice the influence of other city residents. Recognizing the distortions caused by prison-based gerrymandering at the local level, 13 New York counties with large prisons – including four in plaintiff Senator Little’s district – have historically exercised their discretion to remove the prison populations prior to redistricting.

Continue reading →


Will Doolittle’s new column in the Glens Falls Post-Star asks what prison-based gerrymandering can reveal about broader inequalities in the criminal justice system.

by Leah Sakala, February 3, 2012

Because discussions about prison-based gerrymandering are sometimes very technical and numbers-based, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger criminal justice policy picture. Will Doolittle’s new column in the Glens Falls Post-Star zooms way out to ask what prison-based gerrymandering can reveal about broader inequalities in the criminal justice system.

Ending prison-based gerrymandering in New York was a smart move, he says, but there’s more work to do to address disporportionate incarceration rates and rural prison industries:

Far too many of our young urban men in New York spend often-brief sojourns in rural prisons that stigmatize them for the rest of their lives, exposing them to legal discrimination and relegating them to a lower class existence.

Laws may be colorblind, but the criminal justice system is not, unfortunately. White and black people use illegal drugs at about the same rates, for example, but a much higher percentage of black people than white are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for drug crimes. Most of these people are young men, and once convicted, their road to a constructive, satisfying life is particularly steep.

In prison, they are numbers, little more. So many inmates per prison, so many inmates per correction officer, so many inmates per upstate job.

New York should be praised for ending prison-based gerrymandering, but other reforms to improve the criminal justice system must follow:

Prisoners bear responsibility for their actions and the only way for an individual to transcend his incarceration is to first take responsibility for where he has ended up.

But step back and consider all the black and brown young men passing through our state prisons on their way to lives of severely curtailed opportunities. It’s wrong on its face.

They’re being counted where they should be now, but they still don’t count as much as they should.


HB 13, which would allow more counties to reject prison-based gerrymandering, passed unanimously in the Virginia House and now advances to the Senate.

by Leah Sakala, February 2, 2012

Yesterday HB 13, which would allow more counties to reject prison-based gerrymandering, passed unanimously in the Virginia House. The bill, sponsored by Del. Riley Ingram, will now advance to the Senate.

Current Virgina law allows a county to exclude prison populations for redistricting purposes only if the prison population makes up 12% or more of the county’s total population. HB 13 would allow any county with a single district that’s 12% or more incarcerated to exclude prison populations for redistricting purposes, more than doubling the number of counties eligible to avoid prison-based gerrymandering.

As the Roanoke Times so succinctly put it, HB 13 “would move the commonwealth in the right direction” towards ending prison-based gerrymandering.



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