New Virginia bill (HB 1339) to end state's requirement that some counties engage in prison gerrymandering passed House, is making its way through Senate.

by Aleks Kajstura, January 30, 2013

The census’s practice of counting incarcerated people at the location of the facility where they are incarcerated, rather than at their home addresses, continues to test Virginia’s redistricting laws, but the state keeps making progress towards a solution. A new bill to end the state’s requirement that some counties and cities engage in prison gerrymandering, HB 1339, just passed the House and is making its way through the Senate.

Historically, Virginia law required counties and cities to base their legislative districts on unadjusted federal census data, denying local governments in Virginia the flexibility exercised by governments in other states to choose the population base used for redistricting.
This caused some counties’ districts to be distorted by the way prison populations are counted in the census, resulting in prison gerrymandering. Over 200 counties and municipalities across the nation avoid prison gerrymandering by adjusting census data to account for the prison populations.

In 2001, Virginia took its first step in amending the law to give counties where incarcerated people make up more than 12% of the census population the option to avoid padding Board of Supervisors districts with prison populations.

Unfortunately, the 2001 law’s escape valve did not apply to enough local governments. For example, Southampton County’s prison population was too small to benefit from the 2001 law, because the county was forced to draw a district that was more than half incarcerated. This gave the residents of the district with the prison more than twice the political influence of the residents of all other districts in the county.

Last year the law was amended yet again to allow more counties and cities to avoid prison gerrymandering. The law now allows any county, city, or town where a single district would be more than 12% incarcerated to exclude prison populations from its redistricting data.

HB 1339, now in the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, proposes to allow any county, city, or town, regardless of size, to exclude populations of correctional facilities for redistricting purposes. Virginia’s long struggle with the Census Bureau’s prisoner miscount underscores the importance of a comprehensive national solution at the Census Bureau by 2020.

The Valley Advocate and WHMP cover the Massachusetts Legislature's upcoming resolution against prison gerrymandering.

by Leah Sakala, January 9, 2013

Yesterday the Valley Advocate ran a great overview of the Massachusetts Special Joint Committee on Redistricting’s wrap-up report on the process of redrawing the Massachusetts district lines. As the article points out, the Committee found that prison gerrymandering presented a significant problem in the past redistricting cycle:

PPI has led the campaign to fix the problem, producing numerous reports showing the resulting political disparities in districts across the country. PPI also brought the matter to the attention of Massachusetts’ redistricting committee, whose report referred to the “tremendous amount of testimony and advice” it received on the issue. “We agree that the way prisoners are currently counted does a disservice to the state and should be changed,” the authors wrote.

The best solution, the report concludes, is for the Census Bureau to solve the problem nationwide by 2020:

The “most expedient and streamlined” fix […] would be for Congress to call on the Census Bureau to change its policy on counting prisoners. “The tabulation of prisoners should be at the forefront of Bureau priorities in evaluating and adjusting how the 2020 U.S. Census will be conducted,” said the report, which also recommended that the Legislature pass a resolution expressing its support of such a change—and take more dramatic action if necessary. “If the federal government fails to act, then the only recourse is to amend the Massachusetts Constitution,” the report said. “Such a change on the federal level, however, will rectify the perceived inequalities in counting prisoners and eliminate costly litigation for states to defend redistricting plans based on adjusting prison populations.”

I also talked about this great progress towards a Massachusetts resolution against prison gerrymandering with WHMP’s Bill Newman last week as a guest on his show. Give it a listen, and stay tuned for the resolution to be announced!

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