Posts Tagged ‘prison policy initiative’
This is the next in a series of guest posts on criminal justice broadly speaking from Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative.
by Peter Wagner
New York City’s “stop and frisk” policing strategy is getting a lot of attention. A police officer notes a “reasonable suspicion,” whatever that is, and then stops the person, asks some questions and then often frisks him or her.
It’s not hard to see where allegations of racial profiling come from. It’s the subject of a class action lawsuit, and last week 20 people, including Cornel West, were convicted for a civil disobedience protest last year against stop and frisk.
“Stop and frisk” is a major NYC initiative that is growing:
The majority of the people being stopped and frisked are Black and Latino, and that’s been a consistent fact: Read the rest of this entry »
This is the first in a series of guest posts from Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative. These will be short posts on a range of criminal justice topics (not just prison legal issues) that I hope will spark discussion. All opinions are his, etc.
by Peter Wagner
The National Rifle Association is concerned that we aren’t using enough guns. An article in today’s New York Times explains that the National Rifle Association is pushing back against efforts to control gun ownership and use by advancing “Stand Your Ground” laws that actually encourage people to use their weapons. The laws expand the self-defense doctrine to make it easier for someone to shoot another person and claim “self-defense”. These laws are in the news due to the Trayvon Martin case, where an unarmed 17-year-old African-American was shot and killed by a Neighborhood Watch leader in Florida. Last night, after 6 weeks, the prosecutor finally announced that murder charges are being filed.
The NRA bumpersticker declares that guns aren’t the problem: “Guns don’t kill people, People kill people”. But it’s hard to deny that guns are facilitating the result. Internationally, the evidence is clear that nations with higher gun availability have higher gun homicide rates. (See page 43 of this UN report for a fascinating, if overly academic, chart showing the clear correlation.)
Within the U.S., the historical trend is quite clear. Check out this graph that matches the number of handgun homicides each year with the number of handguns produced: Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
Although I said I wouldn’t be blogging this week, there have been a few must-read news items in the past few days for those interested in prison/jail issues:
- “The Crunch in Federal Prisons“: The Crime Report notes that federal prisons are now at 34% above capacity, but Congress isn’t keeping up with the growth by allocating more funding. The federal prison system now holds over 200,000 inmates, i.e., more than California. Slightly over half of federal prisoners are doing time for drug-related crimes, and most of them are subject to tough mandatory minimum sentences.
- “U.S. Likely to Miss Deadline on Prison Rape Rules“: Attorney General Eric Holder is likely to miss an upcoming deadline to promulgate regulations requiring jails and prisons to adopt best practices for preventing prison rape. Holder says local wardens worry the required changes would be too costly.
- “Delaware House passes bill to count incarcerated people at home“: The Delaware House unanimously passed legislation to count incarcerated people at their home addresses for redistricting purposes. The bill now goes to the Senate. If it passes there, Delaware will be the second state — after Maryland — to eliminate prison-based gerrymandering.
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…
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.