WASHINGTON – More states plan to count state prisoners as residents of their home communities, rather than residents of the places where they are incarcerated — a change that would shift political power away from conservative rural areas to more liberal cities during legislative redistricting.
Many inmates hail from neighborhoods in or near cities, but most are incarcerated in small towns and rural areas. Counting prisoners as residents of their hometowns would, for the most part, boost the legislative representation of Democratic-leaning urban areas with large minority populations while diminishing the power of Republican, mostly white rural areas.
New York and Maryland made the change after the 2010 census, and California and Delaware will start with the next redistricting cycle after the 2020 count. Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey could follow suit.
Outgoing Republican Gov. Chris Christie said the idea “smacks of political opportunism” when in 2017 he vetoed a New Jersey bill that would have shifted prisoners to their home communities for the drawing of legislative districts.
But proponents say it’s only fair to draw districts for prison-hosting communities without the prisoners. The prisoners generally can’t vote (except in Maine and Vermont) or participate in local politics, so they shouldn’t be considered constituents. And, supporters say, counting them in prison-hosting areas gives too much voting power to those districts.
A federal judge agreed in 2016 when he declared the commission districts in Jefferson County, Fla., to be unconstitutional. The county — home to the Jefferson Correctional Institution — was divided into five commission districts, each with about 3,000 voting-age people.
And because 1,000 prisoners in one district were unable to vote there, the district’s remaining 2,000 residents received disproportionate representation, the judge ruled.
“To treat the inmates the same as actual constituents makes no sense,” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote. “Such treatment greatly dilutes the voting and representational strength of denizens in other districts.” Walker ordered the county to redraw the districts without counting the prisoners.
Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in redistricting, agreed. “The presence of a prison population in a local district,” he said, “simply distorts representation.”
Even though the states that want to count inmates in their home communities are dominated by Democrats, Levitt said either political party theoretically might benefit from counting inmates where they are. “I emphatically don’t think this is partisan issue.”
Though California approved its law in 2011, it won’t be implemented until after the 2020 census. The state couldn’t collect the home addresses of inmates before the last redistricting cycle, said bill sponsor Mike Davis, then a Democratic state assemblyman and now a Los Angeles public works commissioner.
“It’s going to make a big difference, especially in the viability of our African-American state Senate seats, when you start counting people in South Los Angeles instead of Tehachapi,” Davis said, referring to the site of a large, rural state prison.
New Jersey may be the next state to act, since a new Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, likely will get a chance to sign the bill Christie vetoed. A Rhode Island bill was tabled for more study in March. And the NAACP has sued Connecticut seeking to force similar legislation.