New Census Data will Help Correct Prison-based Gerrymandering

April 25, 2011

Last week the United State Census Bureau released a new data file giving states new opportunities to correct the decades-old problem of prison-based gerrymandering. 

Prison-based gerrymandering occurs when the thousands of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons are counted by the Census as residents of the districts where they are incarcerated rather than residents of their home communities, where most inmates will return upon release.  These two addresses are usually far apart.  When tied with the nation’s significant rate of incarceration, prison-based gerrymandering leads to a systematic distortion of the population in some districts. Districts with prisons are constructed by counting “ghost voters,” or inmates, toward the district size but who, with few exceptions, are not permitted to vote. Furthermore, inmates rarely have any connection to other residents and communities in the district where they are incarcerated. Prison-based gerrymandering inflates the political power of residents in prison districts, and deflates the power of residents everywhere else. 

Last year, the Census Bureau agreed to release a new data product that will provide states with information and greater flexibility to remove people in prison from the prison districts and reallocate them to their home communities for redistricting. 

On April 20, the Census Bureau released an early version of the group quarters data that will include adult correctional facilities in addition to juvenile facilities, nursing facilities and other institutional and non-institutional facilities. The data will have information for states in addition to smaller categories such as counties, census tracts and geographical blocks. The data will allow states to identify and use effectively prison population information for state and local redistricting purposes.  

This data will be particularly useful for New York. As New York gears up for redistricting, the Census Bureau has made it easier for the state to follow its new legislation that put an end to prison-based gerrymandering. In summer 2010, lawmakers in Albany passed a bill that mandated that redistricting officials to allocate people in prison to their home communities rather than to the districts where they are incarcerated.  Maryland and Delaware passed similar legislation last year. 

Earlier this month, several New York legislators filed a lawsuit challenging the New York law.  As the New York Times recently editorialized, people incarcerated in large correctional facilities run by the state cannot be considered true residents of the county or district in which they are incarcerated.  The new group quarters data allows states and localities to correct the skew caused by prison-based gerrymandering.