Shorts archives

A confusing and outdated attorney general opinion has forced Wisconsin local governments into prison gerrymandering, but there is still time to fix this before districts are drawn for the next decade.

by Mike Wessler, October 26, 2021

Small, rural cities and counties are particularly susceptible to the impacts of prison gerrymandering. Low populations and a prison building boom have combined to distort local governance and representation in unanticipated ways.

Few places exemplify this problem as vividly as Wisconsin. Take Adams County, which is north of Madison, for example. After it redrew its lines in response to the 2010 census, this community had a district where incarcerated people made up 62.5% of its population. That means 38 residents here have the same political representation as 100 residents in any other district without a prison. It’s even worse in Waupun, where people incarcerated there make up 75.5% of a district, meaning every 25 residents in this district have the same political clout as 100 residents in other parts of the city.

However, no part of the state feels the distorting local impacts of prison gerrymandering quite like Juneau County. After the 2010 census, as the county looked to redraw its political lines, each district needed to have a population of roughly 1,200 residents to ensure equal representation. However, a new massive prison built recently in the county complicated their efforts to draw fair districts. The prison was so big that if leaders included it in a district, it would mean that twenty residents in that district would have as much political representation as 100 residents in districts without a prison.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article

John Wenum, a longtime county supervisor who oversaw the county’s redistricting efforts in 2011, recently explained to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “(The incarcerated people) weren’t residents in the normal sense… it actually skewed things in some very significant ways.”

Leaders in Juneau County recognized this was a problem and wanted to fix it, so they sought guidance from the state on how to do that, but were told their hands were tied. They learned an outdated and confusing 1981 opinion from the state’s attorney general directs local governments to draw new district lines without excluding incarcerated people. It requires local governments to take part in prison gerrymandering, even though they didn’t want to. In the absence of other legislative or regulatory guidance, attorney general opinions hold significant legal weight, so Wenum and other leaders felt they had no choice. He told the Journal Sentinel, “The attitude here was ‘We’re not going to rock the boat, we’ll go with the flow.'”

The bad news is this opinion meant that for the last decade, some residents of the county have had considerably more say in the actions of their county government than their neighbors.

But the good news is state and local leaders in Wisconsin still have the opportunity to fix this problem for the next decade.

Attorney general opinions are powerful, but like local district lines, they are not set in stone. Wisconsin’s current attorney general, Josh Kaul, can issue a new legal opinion that updates the outmoded legal reasoning from 1981 and makes it clear that local governments can address prison gerrymandering, and there are plenty of reasons for him to do so.

In recent years, more than a dozen states have taken meaningful actions to end this practice, more than 200 local governments have done so, too. Federal courts have ruled against prison gerrymandering. Even the Census Bureau has recognized the validity of efforts to fix this problem and taken steps to make it easier for governments to exclude or reallocate prison populations when drawing new district lines.

As we speak, cities and counties across the country are beginning the process of redrawing their political districts for the next decade. If Attorney General Kaul takes action soon to issue a new opinion, he can help Wisconsin local governments avoid being stuck with another decade of districts distorted by prison gerrymandering.

Pennsylvania and Montana poised to become first states to end prison gerrymandering without legislation, a solution the Prison Policy Initiative has recommended in other states as well. New Jersey expands its law to cover congressional and local districts.

by Mike Wessler, August 31, 2021

Redistricting has officially begun across the country, and over the last few weeks, several states have taken important steps to ensure people who are incarcerated are counted at their homes when new districts are drawn rather than in a prison cell.

The most significant of these victories occurred in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Joanna McClinton worked with advocates to add that state to the growing list of places that have ended the practice of prison gerrymandering when drawing legislative districts. This victory was particularly important because instead of relying on legislation, the independent Legislative Reapportionment Commission decided to end the practice on its own, making it the first state to do so. In urging other members of the commission to take this step, McClinton made the implications of the decision clear when she said, “We cannot wait another ten years. The time to correct this injustice is right now.”

The Keystone State may have been the first to address prison gerrymandering through its independent redistricting commission, but it likely won’t be the last. In Montana, a bipartisan consensus has formed on the need to fix the problem. Members of the state’s redistricting commission recently voted unanimously to take steps toward ending prison gerrymandering in legislative redistricting. They also are asking the state’s governor and congressional delegation to take action to help end the practice and urging the U.S. Census Bureau to end prison gerrymandering nationwide–a step we’ve advocated that the agency take for nearly twenty years.

Finally, lawmakers in New Jersey, a state that previously ended prison gerrymandering in legislative redistricting, recently voted to expand their law to make it apply to congressional and local government redistricting as well. The measure was recently signed by Gov. Phil Murphy.

a map showing the areas that have addressed prison gerrymandering

The next few months are sure to be a whirlwind, but it is still not too late for state and local governments to ensure equal representation for their residents. As we’ve seen in Pennsylvania and Montana, states can use their redistricting commissions to solve this issue without legislation. Similarly, cities, counties, and school boards can use information contained in the recently released census data to avoid prison gerrymandering when drawing their new districts.

The redistricting decisions made over the coming weeks and months will have implications for the next decade. As of today, 40% of the country lives in a state, county, or municipality that has formally rejected prison gerrymandering. While new lines are drawn over the coming months, we’re committed to growing this number further.

Our new quick-reference chart helps advocates sift through the differences between states' legislative approaches to ending various aspects of prison gerrymandering.

by Andrea Fenster, August 30, 2021

More than 10 states have now passed legislation ending prison gerrymandering. However, each state has taken a slightly different approach towards achieving that goal, creating laws that sometimes differ in substantive (though not always substantial) ways.

chart thumbnail

We have created a new quick reference chart to help advocates and legislators sift through and compare some of these differences. Our chart includes the legislative history in each state, a statutory reference, a breakdown of which levels of government the law applies to, whether the law is mandatory or permissive, the different types of institutions covered, and how unknown or out-of-state addresses are dealt with.

Of course, our model legislation offers our best guidance for those looking to end prison gerrymandering in their own states.

by Aleks Kajstura, May 14, 2021

On Wednesday, the Connecticut General Assembly passed SB 753, a bill that will strengthen state democracy by requiring that incarcerated people be counted as residents of their hometowns, not their prison cells, at redistricting time. If Governor Ned Lamont signs the bill, it will make Connecticut the eleventh state to end the practice known as prison gerrymandering.

This victory is the result of years-long efforts by Senator Gary Winfield and advocates including Common Cause Connecticut, the NAACP of Connecticut, and the Yale Law Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic. The law will go into effect for this year’s redistricting process, bringing an immediate end to the prison-driven distortion of representation in Connecticut.

A new resource from the Prison Policy Initiative and State Innovation Exchange.

by Aleks Kajstura, March 5, 2020

report thumbnailSiX and the Prison Policy Initiative have released a guide to ending prison gerrymandering for state legislators. Whether you’re new to prison gerrymandering, working on a bill already filed this session, or somewhere in between, there’s something for everyone in this guide — it includes lessons from our previous advocacy, detailed policy recommendations, talking points, and much more.

by Wanda Bertram, February 19, 2020

The Virginia House of Delegates is expected to vote within the next two weeks on SJ18, a constitutional amendment to reform the state’s redistricting process. The amendment and its enabling legislation would also make Virginia the 8th state to end “prison gerrymandering” — ensuring that people in state prisons are counted as residents of their home addresses, and not their prison cells, when new legislative districts are drawn.

Last week, the Senate equivalent of the amendment (SJ18) and enabling legislation (SB203) passed out of the upper chamber. Meanwhile, the House has passed enabling legislation (HB758), but has yet to put the amendment on the floor. Both houses must pass this redistricting reform package by the first week of March so the amendment can go to Virginia voters on November’s ballot.

The House of Delegates should follow the Senate’s lead and pass SJ18. This amendment will bring Virginia one step closer to ensuring equal representation for their residents — a tremendous step forward for civil rights.

The Washington State legislature is close to passing a bill enabling its redistricting commission to end prison gerrymandering.

by Aleks Kajstura, April 16, 2019

Washington State is poised to become the fifth state to end prison gerrymandering. SB 5287, sponsored by Senators Darneille and Hunt, introduced on January 17, 2019; the bill passed the Senate on March 11, 2019, and the House on April 16, 2019.

Because the bill was amended in the House, it will now go back to the Senate for a concurrence vote. (The House amendment clarified how incarcerated people from out of state or with unknown addresses would be counted.)

The Census Bureau has decided to count incarcerated people in the wrong place again at the next Census, so states are taking action on their own now to avoid prison gerrymandering after the 2020 Census. Washington is one of ten states with bills to end prison gerrymandering pending this session, if the bills pass these states would join California, Delaware, Maryland and New York in ensuring equal representation for their residents.

by Aleks Kajstura, May 12, 2015

Minnesota’s election omnibus reform bill, SF 455, passed the senate yesterday. The bill includes ending prison gerrymandering among other reforms. For more information on the prison gerrymandering provisions (Article 6) of the bill check out my written testimony. The bill now awaits action in the House, stay tuned.

Census Bureau receives Massachusetts’ resolution urging the Census to tabulate incarcerated people at their home address.

by Aleks Kajstura, September 12, 2014

Massachusetts' joint resolution calling on the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people at their home addressesToday, the Massachusetts legislature delivered its joint resolution to Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson.

The resolution urges the Census Bureau to provide the state with redistricting data that tabulates incarcerated people at their home addresses. By tabulating incarcerated people at their residential addresses, as called for in the resolution, the Bureau would create a national and permanent solution to prison gerrymandering.

Census Bureau asked to solve prison gerrymandering nationally, save states from each having to adjust Census data on their own.

by Aleks Kajstura, August 22, 2014

Three U.S. Senators recently wrote a joint letter to the Census Bureau, reiterating that the Census’ current methodology of tabulating incarcerated people as if they were residents of the prison location rather than of their home addresses leads to prison gerrymandering. Noting that the Census Bureau is in the best position to end prison gerrymandering nationally — saving the states from each having to adjust Census data themselves — the Senators asked the Bureau to inform them of the “steps it is taking in the near term” toward counting incarcerated people as residents of their home address.

The Senators’ letter, along with others written to the Census Bureau, can be found on our letters page.

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