Prison-based Gerrymandering Distorts Democracy — and Luckily, Can Be Fixed without Distorting Federal Funding
Readers of this blog will be familiar by now with the term “prison-based gerrymandering”: the process by which counting prisoners where they’re incarcerated at Census time, rather than where they’re from, distorts legislative districts at both the local and state levels. This inflates the political power of the (typically rural) districts that happen to house prisons, at the expense of the urban districts where most prisoners come from, as well as all the rural districts that don’t have prisons. In many states, there are entire legislative districts that wouldn’t exist without counting prisoners. But prisoners, of course, can’t vote and aren’t generally treated as constituents for any other purpose.
Several states have legislation pending this year to end prison-based gerrymandering, and for the first time the 2010 Census will release data in a way that allows states to subtract prisoners from districts if they so choose. However, some local politicians are resistant to these reforms, because of a false belief that removing prisoners from local population counts would also cause their areas to lose federal funding. The media may have fueled this resistance; Aleks Kajstura of the Prison Policy Initiative notes, “Despite our best efforts, media stories keep on appearing that claim that the Census Bureau’s prison count means a huge windfall of federal funds to towns that host prisons, while depriving high-incarceration communities of those same funds.”
This is simply not true. In a recent post at the Prisoners of the Census blog, Aleks explains why:
These stories are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how federal funding streams work and an overly simplistic reading of the Census Bureau’s call to participate in the Census. … Most federal funding is distributed in the form of block grants to states and these are unaffected by where within any given state people are counted. And much of the rest, it turns out, is distributed by methods far too sophisticated to be fooled by where the Census counts incarcerated people.
Rather than funding, then, the primary harm of prison-based gerrymandering is the way it distorts the democratic process at the state and local levels. Luckily, this is a problem that can easily be fixed, without reducing — or even, in most cases, affecting at all — the distribution of federal funds. You can read more about the problem at the Prisoners of the Census website. And, if you see a misleading article in your local media claiming that large amounts of federal funds are at stake when it comes to counting prisoners, perhaps you can write a letter to the editor correcting this misunderstanding of the issue.