New Report Calls for Elimination of 'Prison-Based Gerrymandering'
June 16, 2010 - Posted by The Leadership Conference
The explosion of the prison population in recent decades is enabling towns where the prisons are located to unjustly increase their political power by counting inmates as legal residents, according to "Captive Constituents," a new report by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF).
In the state of New York, for example, 43,000 prisoners, or two-thirds of the state penitentiary system, come from New York City. Of that number, about 91 percent are incarcerated in rural and less populated areas of the state and were counted as residents there as opposed to their pre-arrest address. Without the prison population, seven of the state Senate districts from the 2000 redistricting cycle would fall short of the minimum number of people needed to properly constitute a district.
"This practice is known as 'prison-based gerrymandering,' and it distorts our democratic process by artificially inflating the population count – and thus, the political influence – of the districts where prisons and jails are located," says LDF Director-Counsel John Payton. "Everyone should care about this anti-democratic phenomenon because it distorts our political system."
LDF notes that with African Americans representing 41.3 percent of the federal and state prison population, the practice of towns counting inmates echoes the infamous compromise that counted black slaves as three-fifths of a person in apportioning districts while denying them the right to vote. The compromise was later repudiated with the ratification of the14th Amendment in the wake of the Civil War.
"Prison-based gerrymandering," the report says, also violates the Constitutional "one person, one vote" requirement that legislative districts have to be roughly equal in size to ensure voters have an equitable share of power.
The report recommends that in the future the Census Bureau counts prisoners as members of their home communities or at their pre-arrest address rather than their current place of incarceration. In the meantime, LDF advocates for states and localities to take advantage of forthcoming data to be published on group quarters counts, including correctional facilities, for each Census block in the nation, which will be available prior to next round of redistricting.