Opinion: States Are Leading the Way and Putting an End to Prison Gerrymandering

The 2020 Census demonstrated what most have long known – we are a nation that is growing increasingly diverse. But for too long, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American/Pacific Islander, and other communities of color driving our growth have been sidelined in our democracy. While it’s more common to hear about voter suppression laws and gerrymandered district maps, one lesser-known evil is prison gerrymandering. Thankfully, there is still time in this redistricting cycle to this harmful practice in the current redistricting cycle.

The goal of the decennial Census is to count every person living in the United States based on where they live, a concept known as “usual residence.” Yet decade after decade, the Census Bureau counts people who are incarcerated at their place of incarceration instead of their home address, a practice known as prison gerrymandering.  

The problem with counting prisons as someone’s “usual residence” is that on average citizens are incarcerated in state facilities for 2.6 years. Since the Census count takes place once every 10 years, many will be counted as residents of the prison long after they have left. That dynamic means they will lose the opportunity to be represented in the communities where they move back to following their release. Prison gerrymandering results in stolen power from diverse metropolitan areas by bolstering representation in less diverse and more rural districts that house prisons. 

Prison gerrymandering means people incarcerated at the time of the Census – a disproportionate number of whom are people of color – have been used to artificially inflate the population of and siphon federal dollars towards predominately Whiter and rural communities. In other words, less populated rural areas benefit from the long-standing practice of counting residents in places where they do not actually reside. 

At the state level, for example, Assembly District 53 in Wisconsin, would be 10 percent below the required size if the incarcerated bodies of mostly Black Americans weren’t being used to pad population totals. This shift in political power impacts congressional and state legislative races, but the problem is especially egregious in local jurisdictions. For example, in Cranston, R. I. more than 25 percent of the state’s Ward 6 is made up of incarcerated individuals – even though people inside the prison have been disenfranchised and cannot vote. 

Last month, the Census Bureau delivered redistricting data to the states, kicking off the next phase in the creation of voting maps that will determine who represents Americans in government and how our democracy will function for the next decade. And while the Bureau persisted in counting incarcerated individuals at their place of confinement, a growing number of states and local jurisdictions are taking steps to end prison gerrymandering and do their best to count everyone at their actual place of residence. 

Following the lead of Maryland and New York, both of which ended prison gerrymandering in 2010, eight additional states passed laws to end prison gerrymandering for the 2021 redistricting cycle. This year, Illinois, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania became the tenth, eleventh and twelfth states, respectively, that will count incarcerated people at the location of their home community. Illinois’ law was not passed in time to go into effect this year but will take effect in the next redistricting cycle in 2030. In addition, several local jurisdictions have passed ordinances or determined that existing law allows them to end the practice. 

The growing movement has bipartisan support, and both state and federal courts have consistently upheld state laws that end prison gerrymandering. Indeed, just last week, Virginia’s Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge to its new state law that requires people be counted, for redistricting purposes, at their last address before incarceration. 

There is still time in this redistricting cycle for more states and local jurisdictions to curtail prison gerrymandering. At a minimum and where the law permits, redistricting bodies should exclude prison population counts so that districts are not artificially inflated with people who do not actually live there. And where time and resources permit, jurisdictions should make every attempt to assign incarcerated people to the addresses and districts where they reside. 

It’s been inspiring to see so many states wake up and correct the injustice of prison gerrymandering. It’s vital that states continue to take the lead and put an end to the practice of undermining our constitutional principles, distorting political representation, and shifting power away from communities of color. 

Together, we can ensure our democracy affords equal representation and voice to every one of us. 

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