New law builds on the previous measure that ended the practice in state legislative and congressional redistricting.

by Mike Wessler, March 16, 2022

Last week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that strengthens the state’s anti-prison gerrymandering law by making it apply to city, county, and other local governments when they redistrict. Washington was the fifth state to end the practice in state legislative and congressional redistricting. By extending this law to local governments, Washington is now among the gold standard states that have ended prison gerrymandering.

Prison gerrymandering occurs because the Census Bureau erroneously counts all incarcerated people as residents of their prison cell rather than their home community. Most people in prison don’t come from communities where they are incarcerated and return to their home community after release. Because of their small size, local governments feel some of the most dramatic impacts of prison gerrymandering. When a city or county includes a prison’s population when redistricting, it gives residents who live closest to the prison significantly more political clout and diminishes the residents’ voices in other districts.

Under the law, when new census population data is released every ten years, the state redistricting commission will adjust the data to count incarcerated people in their home communities rather than where they are incarcerated. Local governments will then use this adjusted data to draw their new district lines rather than the data provided directly by the Census Bureau. The legislation applies only to redistricting and will not affect federal or state funding distributions.

While the law will not impact the current redistricting process, cities and counties that have not yet drawn new district lines can take steps on their own to draw more fair districts that do not use incarcerated people to pad populations. After the 2010 census, at least three Washington counties took part in prison gerrymandering.

Prison gerrymandering is a problem that can best be solved if the Census Bureau changed its policy to count incarcerated people as residents of their home communities rather than a prison cell. Roughly half of all residents of the United States now live in a city, county, or state that has addressed prison gerrymandering. The actions by Washington to strengthen its anti-prison gerrymandering laws add to the growing consensus that the Census Bureau should end this unjust practice once and for all.

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