Federal legislation would require the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people at their true homes, rather than in prison cells.

by Danielle Squillante, April 26, 2023

Today, Congresswoman Deborah Ross from North Carolina, along with Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, and Rep. Emilia Strong Sykes of Ohio, introduced legislation to end prison gerrymandering nationwide. The bill would require the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people at their last known residence rather than their prison cell, which is where the Bureau currently counts them. When states and local governments draw political districts using Census data that counts incarcerated people in prisons, they unintentionally enhance the representation of people who live near prisons while diluting the representation of everyone else. This legislation would ensure that every community receives equal political representation.

The introduction of this bill comes on the heels of Montana — with wide bipartisan support — passing legislation to end prison gerrymandering in the state permanently. Montana Governor Greg Gianforte signed the measure — which received near-unanimous support — into law yesterday.

The Census Bureau has the ability to fix this problem on its own but thus far has stubbornly refused to do so. There are plenty of reasons for it to make this change:

  • Governments are increasingly rejecting the Bureau’s flawed way of counting incarcerated people, signaling the agency is not meeting its responsibility to provide data that is ready for use by state and local governments;
  • The Bureau’s way of counting incarcerated people ignores the realities of modern incarceration;
  • Communities of color are disproportionately harmed by prison gerrymandering; and
  • The Bureau’s policy treats incarcerated people differently than others in similar situations.

State and local governments already recognize the importance making this change. Roughly half of the U.S. population lives in a place that has taken steps to end prison gerrymandering, with over a dozen states and over 200 local governments — both urban and rural — taking action on this issue. In the absence of a federal solution, these states and local governments have had to make corrections and adjustments to Census data to ensure it accurately reflects its population. After the 2020 redistricting process, states expressed frustration with the current process and challenges they faced, including accessing data in a timely manner, adjusting the data so it aligns with state laws, and getting address information for individuals in federal custody.

The best way to solve this problem is for the Census Bureau to change its policies to count incarcerated people at home — something it can do today without legislation. By acting to make this change now, before legislation is passed, the Bureau can develop a comprehensive research and implementation plan that ensures this transition is smooth and thoughtful. However, today’s bill shows that if the agency fails to act, lawmakers in Congress are increasingly ready to force it to finally fix this problem.

The victory in Montana is a testament to the growing bipartisan and rural support for redistricting reforms that count incarcerated people in their home communities. It's time for the Census Bureau to follow suit.

April 25, 2023

After it received bipartisan and nearly unanimous support, today, Montana Governor Gianforte signed into law a bill permanently ending prison gerrymandering in the state. Prison gerrymandering is a problem created because the Census Bureau incorrectly counts incarcerated people as residents of their prison cells rather than their home communities. As a result, when states use Census data to draw new legislative districts, they inadvertently give residents of districts with prisons greater political representation at the expense of everyone else.

The new law, which was sponsored by Sen. Shane Morigeau, codifies reforms implemented by the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission when it drew new legislative maps after the 2020 Census. It requires the state’s Department of Corrections to collect and report data on the home addresses of people in its custody to the Commission, so members can use it to draw maps that accurately reflect the population of the state.

Map showing half the U.S. population lives in a places that has ended prison gerrymandering.

When drawing the state’s current legislative maps, the Commission had to overcome significant obstacles to address prison gerrymandering. It had to pay outside contractors to adjust the flawed data provided by the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people at their last known residence. In a bipartisan letter to the Bureau, the Commission called on the agency to adjust its residence rules to count incarcerated people at their last place of residence, so states have more complete and useful redistricting data going forward.

Montana’s bipartisan progress on this issue continues the long-standing history of rural communities calling for reforms to end prison gerrymandering. The movement to end this practice first came to prominence when Anamosa, IA — a town of roughly 5,300 residents — realized it had a City Council district in which 96% of the residents were incarcerated, making it nearly impossible to draw districts that truly represented the population of the community. Since then, lawmakers and news outlets from communities large and small have called for an end to the practice.

Since we began our national campaign to end prison gerrymandering in 2001, more than 200 local governments and over a dozen states have taken action to end the practice. Roughly half of U.S. residents now live in a city, county, or state that has taken action to end prison gerrymandering.

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