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Count This As a Big Step Forward

Now that the Census will deliver prison-count data in time for redistricting plans, learn how to use that data effectively to finally reduce the effects of prison-based gerrymandering.

  • Justin Levitt
February 12, 2010

Yester­day, word spread that the Census Bureau would make a power­ful new tool avail­able to the states, counties, and cities need­ing to redraw polit­ical districts after the 2010 census. Along with the stand­ard data­file telling us how many people are assigned to any geograph­ical slice of the coun­try, the Bureau will tell us, at the same time, how many are incar­cer­ated.   

This is a big step toward correct­ing a prob­lem that the Bren­nan Center’s been work­ing on for most of the decade. Right now, people in prison show up in the census data at the blocks where they are incar­cer­ated, rather than at the addresses they came from in their home communit­ies. The two are usually far from each other. And with the nation’s rising incar­cer­a­tion rate, they lead to a system­atic distor­tion of the popu­la­tion picture.

When districts are based on this data, they build the distor­tion into the distri­bu­tion of local demo­cracy. Districts are construc­ted on the backs of “ghost voters,” pack­ing in pris­on­ers who count toward the district size but who, with few excep­tions, are not permit­ted to vote, and who have no connec­tion at all to the other resid­ents of the district or its welfare. This arti­fi­cially inflates the polit­ical power of voters in prison districts, skew­ing the incent­ives of politi­cians there — and it arti­fi­cially deflates the power of voters every­where else. Peter Wagner has done an enorm­ous amount of home­work to show exactly how severe the distor­tion is, complete with a calcu­lator to drive the math home.

For example, after the last census, 1300 of the 1400 people allot­ted to Ward 2 of the Anamosa, Iowa, city coun­cil were in prison.  This left polit­ical power completely lopsided: the few others in ward 2 had far more lever­age than any of their neigh­bors in town.  Indeed, in districts so distor­ted, we’d hardly recog­nize what passes for demo­cracy. In 2006, the city coun­cil seat for Anamosa’s Ward 2 was won with two write-in votes — one cast by the winner’s wife.  

The right way to handle prison popu­la­tions is to count people at their last known address before incar­cer­a­tion, which is where virtu­ally all pris­on­ers return when they are released. There are already bills afloat in at least five states in this legis­lat­ive session, on top of a federal bill, to accom­plish just that (here’s a complete legis­lat­ive list). And it’s already required by Missis­sippi law, at least for local districts. But the clock has run out on admin­is­trat­ive capa­city to do the same nation­wide, for each and every facil­ity, before redis­trict­ing starts.

So we turn to the next best thing: even where it’s not possible to get pris­on­ers’ addresses right, it’s possible to take on half of the skew by ensur­ing that they’re not inflat­ing the loca­tions that are wrong. Instead, incar­cer­ated popu­la­tions would be addressed as part of the juris­dic­tion gener­ally, without a more specific geographic tie, just like service­mem­bers and federal govern­ment person­nel who are over­seas on Census Day. These people are assigned to the state whence they came in order to appor­tion members of Congress, but not assigned to a specific address within that state that would affect redis­trict­ing.

Remov­ing this half of the skew would not completely fix the prison distor­tion, by recon­nect­ing the incar­cer­ated popu­la­tion to the communit­ies to which they most tangibly belong. But it would take a signi­fic­ant step toward making districts more fair. And this step would bene­fit all of the remain­ing voters in the juris­dic­tion, whose polit­ical power is now arti­fi­cially diluted.

Some juris­dic­tions already do this. About 1/3 of the counties with pris­ons in New York State, for example, don’t tie prison popu­la­tions to local districts. Cali­for­nia counties with large prison popu­la­tions have asked for permis­sion to make the change; for Color­ado counties, it’s required. Until yester­day, however, any new juris­dic­tion that wanted to follow these lead­ers had to go through the legwork of collect­ing the neces­sary data.

The Census Bureau’s new data­set elim­in­ates that cost entirely. All you need to fix half of the skew is to use the Bureau’s incar­cer­a­tion numbers to real­loc­ate prison popu­la­tions from lopsided districts to the juris­dic­tion as a whole. And now that the Bureau will deliver incar­cer­a­tion counts at the same time as the other redis­trict­ing data, those that want to draw fairer districts, anywhere in the coun­try, will find it much easier to do so.