Posts Tagged ‘census 2010’
Our friends at the Prison Policy Initiative worked tirelessly last year for a legislative end to prison-based gerrymandering in New York State. To put the problem in perspective, upstate New York has seven State Senate districts that would not meet minimum population requirements without claiming incarcerated people as residents. The good news is the legislation passed, but now a group of (surprise!) upstate state senators has filed suit seeking to block implementation.
Lead plaintiff, State Senator Betty Little, has 13 prisons in her district, housing over 10,000 prisoners, so no wonder she’s nervous at the prospect of redistricting without that artificial boost to her numbers. But as Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative points out, inflating State Senator Little’s district only dilutes the votes of everyone else in New York State:
“Senator Betty Little filed suit this week to revive a legal fiction, claiming that individuals imprisoned in her district are members of the local community and should be counted there when it comes to drawing state and local legislative districts. Senator Little’s attempt to inflate the population of her district with more than 10,000 incarcerated, non-voting residents from other parts of the state will dilute the votes cast in all other districts.”
Ramon Velasquez puts the issue in personal perspective at the Huffington Post:
What if I told you your vote counts more depending on where you live in New York? Should a resident of Wyoming or Cayuga County gets more say in who is elected than a resident of Brooklyn or the Bronx?
At 51, I voted for the first time in my life last fall after I was discharged from parole. Now that I’ve done my time, I expect my vote, or my neighbor’s, to count the same as any other vote cast in this state. A person living in a town with a prison, however, has more voting power than me or most other New Yorkers because of a practice called “prison-based gerrymandering.”
Of course, prison-based gerrymandering does dilute the vote of residents of Brooklyn and the Bronx, but it also dilutes the vote of Manhattan and Staten Island and Long Island, of parts of upstate New York that aren’t near a prison — basically, it dilutes the vote of anyone who doesn’t live in a district with a prison. The Prison Policy Initiative also has a round-up of news coverage and a copy of the senators’ complaint (PDF).
While Prison Law Blog was enjoying last week’s Thanksgiving break, I noticed several reports from our friends at the Prison Policy Initiative on how prison-based gerrymandering can dilute Native American political power in states where natives are disproportionately incarcerated. That’s basically every state with a significant native population: here are charts showing how Native Americans are overrepresented in Hawaii, Alaska, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Colorado, Idaho, Vermont, Iowa, and Michigan, to name a few. Hawaii not only disproportionately incarcerates native Hawaiians but also ships most of its inmates to private prisons on the mainland, further skewing its Census results. But let’s look more closely at Montana. From a 2004 Prison Policy Initiative report:
How the incarcerated are counted in Montana is of critical importance to an accurate count of Native American communities. While Native Americans are 6% of the Montana population, more than 20% the incarcerated people in the state are Native American. Native American women are the same 6% of Montana women, but are 32% of the incarcerated women in the state. Native Americans in Montana are incarcerated at a rate more than 4 times higher than the White residents of the state.
Many critics of prison-based gerrymandering focus (rightly) on the practice’s effects on African-American communities, but it’s worth noting that prison-based gerrymandering (especially when combined with felon voting bans, although that’s a separate issue) dilutes the political power of any group that is disproportionately incarcerated. For that matter, prison-based gerrymandering also dilutes the political power of anyone who doesn’t live near a prison. As always, the Prisoners of the Census blog offers a wealth of resources on this topic.
Yesterday, the New York State Senate passed a bill to count prisoners in their home communities during next year’s legislative redistricting process — rather than counting prisoners where they are incarcerated, which inflates the districts in which prisons are located at the expense of other districts. The bill had already passed in the State Assembly and now goes to Gov. David Paterson for his signature. New York is the third state to pass legislation this year addressing prison-based gerrymandering, after Maryland and Delaware.
The new law will help New York correct past distortions in representation caused by counting incarcerated persons as residents of prisons, such as the following:
Seven of the current New York State Senate districts meet minimum population requirements only by claiming incarcerated people as residents. Forty percent of an Oneida County legislative district is incarcerated, and 50 percent of a Rome City Council ward is incarcerated, giving the people who live next to the prisons more influence than people in other districts or wards.
Delaware’s Senate and House have passed legislation that would count prisoners at home for redistricting purposes. Now, the signature of Governor Jack Markell is the only remaining step to turn Delaware’s HB384 into law. Delaware will become, after Maryland, the second state in the nation to address the democracy-distorting practice of using prison populations to artificially inflate electoral districts. The Delaware law only applies to redistricting, and will not affect state or federal funding allocations.
From the Prisoners of the Census blog:
“Delaware’s legislation recognizes that prison-based gerrymandering is a problem of fairness in redistricting. All districts — some far more than others — send people to prison, but only some districts have large prisons. Counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison distorts the principle of one person, one vote, and we applaud the Delaware General Assembly for enacting this common-sense solution,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative.
The problem is national as well. One state assembly district in New York includes 7% prisoners; a state house district in Texas includes 12% prisoners; and 15% of one Montana state house district consists of prisoners imported from other parts of the state. Prison-based gerrymandering was not a serious problem when the prison population was tiny, but the 2010 Census will find five times as many people in prison as it did just three decades ago.
If you want political power, you should move to City Council Ward 2 in Anamosa, Iowa. There, you’ll only have to share your City Council representative with 57 other constituents! In any of Anamosa’s other three wards, you’d have to share your representative with about 1,370 other constituents. How is this possible? Through the magic of prison-based gerrymandering. Anamosa’s Ward 2 contains a state penitentiary home to about 1,320 inmates, who get factored into the population count for the purpose of City Council districting even though they can’t vote, and are unlikely even to be from Anamosa.
That’s an extreme instance of prison-based gerrymandering, but it’s not as extreme as you might think. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has produced an informative publication, Captive Constituents (PDF download), that outlines the democracy-distorting effects of counting prisoners where they’re incarcerated when drawing state and local election districts. As the example of Anamosa demonstrates, prison-based gerrymandering is not primarily an urban-rural or racial issue. It dilutes the votes of everyone who doesn’t live in a district with a prison — like the rural Iowans who live in Anamosa City Council Wards 1, 3, and 4.
That said, prison-based gerrymandering undeniably has unique effects on urban minority communities. Read the rest of this entry »
This weekend, the American Constitution Society will hold its national convention in Washington, D.C. Almost all the panels could bear on prison/jail issues in some way, and certainly on broader concerns of criminal law, procedure, and punishment. That said, if you’re planning to attend and are especially interested in prison/jail issues, watch out for these panels:
Friday, June 18
- 2010 Census and Redistricting — perhaps the discussion will touch on prison-based gerrymandering?
- Access to Federal Courts after Iqbal and Twombly
- Immigration Reform: Congress and the States
Saturday, June 19
- Detainees and Justice: Military Commissions vs. Trials within the Federal Court System
- The Federal Role in Improving Indigent Criminal Defense
Kudos to the Maryland legislature for showing national leadership on this important issue! From the Prison Policy Initiative:
April 13, 2010 – Today, Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law a bill ensuring that incarcerated persons will be counted as residents of their home addresses when new state and local legislative districts are drawn in Maryland.
The U.S. Census counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison location. When state and local government bodies use Census counts to draw legislative districts, they unintentionally enhance the weight of a vote cast in districts that contain prisons at the expense of all other districts in the state. Maryland is the first state to pledge to collect the home addresses of incarcerated people and correct the data state-wide.
The new law will help Maryland correct past distortions in representation caused by counting incarcerated persons as residents of prisons…