Although I am very interested in the broad range of issues affecting fairness in representation for Massachusetts communities, I am going to focus my remarks today on the specific issue of incarcerated populations and the manner in which they are counted for purposes of redistricting. This issue has become increasingly important to the fairness of redistricting around the country, and it is important here in Massachusetts.
The problem stems from a long-standing flaw in the Census that counts incarcerated people as residents of the district where they are incarcerated rather than in their home district. Crediting incarcerated people to the census block that contains the prison, rather than to the home community that remains the legal residence of incarcerated persons, results in a significant enhancement of the weight of a vote cast in districts with prisons at the expense of all other residents in all other districts in the state. It particularly distorts fair representation for communities of color, which are disproportionately affected by high rates of incarceration.
The rules that the Census Bureau uses for determining "residence" were adopted long before prison populations in the U.S. became large enough to have a significant effect on representation. The U.S. now has some 1.6 million persons in state and federal prisons. In Massachusetts, the growth of prison population in recent decades has been enormous. As a percentage of population, Massachusetts now incarcerates three times as many people as it did as recently as 1980, according to data maintained by the Prison Policy Initiative. And prisons are frequently located in areas geographically and demographically removed from the home communities of incarcerated persons.
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