Bureau's Action Is First Step Toward Ending Prison-Based Gerrymandering
New York, NY — This week, the Census Bureau has agreed to produce a new data product that will assist state and local governments in avoiding prison-based gerrymandering, whereby districts that contain prisons are given extra representation in the legislature. The move was commended by a national network of advocates working to reform state redistricting practices, including the Prison Policy Initiative, Demos, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), and The National Coalition.
Under most state constitutions and election law statutes, a prison cell is not a residence, but existing Census Bureau practices count incarcerated people as residents of the prison location. In the past, states and counties that wished to correct this overrepresentation of districts with prisons have received little support from the Census Bureau, as the Bureau has traditionally published the prison populations at the census block level long after redistricting is underway or completed.
According to an agreement reached by Census Director Robert Groves and Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay, Jr., Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives, for the first time the Census Bureau has now agreed to identify which census blocks contain group quarters such as correctional facilities early enough so that state and local redistricting bodies can choose to use this data to draw fair districts.
"The Census Bureau has taken an important step toward recognizing the need for improved data on incarcerated populations so that states can end the practice of prison-based gerrymandering," said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. "Streamlining release of the prison counts will assist states and local governments that have been struggling to correct distorted redistricting data."
The stepped-up timeline for release of the data, which will happen in May 2011, came after discussion between Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves and the chair of the House Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives, Missouri 1st District Representative Wm. Lacy Clay, Jr., of St. Louis, who urged the Bureau to accelerate the release.
The advocates had earlier urged the Census to determine the home addresses of incarcerated people and count them there, but it is far too late in the 2010 Census planning to change that. This interim solution of releasing accelerated data identifying prison populations will assist governments that wish to make their own adjustments for state and local redistricting. Legislation to make such adjustments is currently pending in New York, Maryland, Illinois, Florida and Wisconsin.
"For too long, communities with large prisons have received greater representation in government on the backs of people who have no voting rights in the prison community and are not considered legal residents of the prison district for any other purpose. The Census Bureau's new data will greatly assist states and localities in correcting this injustice and drawing fair and accurate districts that honor the principle of one person, one vote." said Brenda Wright, Director of the Democracy Program at Demos.
"We have seen increasing local interest in adjusting districts to correct the unequal and artificial skew deflating each resident's voice outside of a prison district. We applaud the Census Bureau for this significant step in giving jurisdictions the tools they need to set things right," said Erika Wood, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
"Counting prisoners where they are punishes their families and can have staggering effects on poor and minority communities," said Melanie L. Campbell, executive director & CEO, The National Coalition, and convener, Unity Diaspora Coalition Census Campaign. "We commend the Census Bureau for attempting to provide a provisional solution to correct the miscount of prisoners by producing a data product for state and local governments, and look forward to counting prisoners correctly in the 2020 Census."
"Prison populations have a huge impact on districts at the county level, where in some cases inmates are the majority of a district. It's been a real struggle to identify the prisons in the data to remove them, but this new product will make this very easy," said Bill Cooper, a demographer in Virginia who assists rural counties in drawing county legislative districts.
"Because incarcerated persons in the United States are disproportionately African Americans and other people of color, the current counting of prisoners at their place of incarceration, rather than at their pre-arrest residence, severely weakens the voting strength of entire communities of color," said John Payton, Director-Counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). "The Census Bureau's decision is a step in the right direction, and we urge states and municipalities to take advantage of this opportunity to correct a manifest injustice and to ensure greater voting equality."
While hailing the Census Bureau's first step toward improving its practices on counting incarcerated persons, advocates are engaged in a longer-term campaign to encourage the Bureau to implement a more permanent solution under which the decennial census would identify the home communities of incarcerated persons and count them at their home locations. These groups are urging the Census Bureau to begin concrete steps toward this optimal solution as part of the evaluation and review process that will commence upon completion of the 2010 Census.