Montana legislators call for Census Bureau action on “clear, bipartisan consensus” for ending prison gerrymandering

New national op-ed shows the growing bipartisan calls for the Census Bureau to finally fix how it counts incarcerated people.

by Aleks Kajstura, August 30, 2023

The need to end prison gerrymandering is “obvious to anyone who looks at the facts.” That’s the conclusion of a bipartisan duo of Montana lawmakers, Sen. Shane Morigeau and Sen. Jason Small, in an op-ed published this week in The Hill.

Thanks to a bill sponsored by Morigeau and supported by Small, Montana is among the growing list of states that have ended the practice of prison gerrymandering. 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. When states use this flawed Census data to draw new legislative districts, they inadvertently give residents of districts with prisons greater political clout than all other state residents. Montana’s actions limited that injustice in the state.

In the piece, the lawmakers explain the unique ways prison gerrymandering harms residents, particularly communities of color, indigenous people, and low-income individuals:

This power shift has dramatic policy impacts. A community with a high incarceration rate is more likely to support policies that address mass incarceration’s root causes — poverty, substance use and untreated mental health issues. But prison gerrymandering dilutes the voices of these communities, weakening their influence on lawmakers. Ending prison gerrymandering will ensure these communities have an equal voice in policymaking.

In Montana, there was wide bipartisan agreement that the Census Bureau gets it wrong when it comes to counting incarcerated people, which is why there was such a commitment to addressing the issue. The state’s independent redistricting commission was the first to tackle the problem for the 2020 redistricting cycle. Because of the tight timeframe and specialized knowledge needed, it had to hire — at taxpayer expense — outside experts to fix the census data to count incarcerated people at their true homes. And the state’s legislature followed suit, making the practice permanent, even if the Bureau fails to fix the problem once again.

The Senators highlighted the broad support for this change, “Despite [these challenges], the bipartisan commission got it done. Our legislature — controlled by a Republican supermajority — overwhelmingly voted with Democrats to make this change permanent, and our Republican governor signed it into law. ”

Morigeau and Small also call out the Census Bureau for selectively applying its residence rule to harm some of the country’s most disadvantaged people:

As its rationale for counting incarcerated people in the wrong place, the bureau cites its “usual residence rule,” which says they count people where they eat and sleep on most days. This sounds reasonable until you realize the bureau treats incarcerated people differently than others in similar situations. For example, it counts students at boarding schools at their home addresses, but children in juvenile correctional facilities are counted where they are detained, even though two-thirds of them will be there for less than six months.

Finally, the lawmakers ask the inescapable question: “With so many places clamoring for this change and more likely to join their ranks by 2030, why does the Census Bureau still force state and local governments to jump through hoops and spend money to fix a problem it created?” And they exhort the Bureau to fix the problem, stating that ” …ending prison gerrymandering should be near the top of its list of changes” for the 2030 census.

This op-ed is the latest evidence of the growing, bipartisan desire for the Census Bureau to fix how it counts incarcerated people. The question remains: will the Bureau listen?

One response:

  1. William says:

    I always hoped for an end to prison gerrymandering, Kudos to officials who raised their voice.

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