Opinion | You’ve Heard About Gerrymandering. What Happens When It Involves Prisons?

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In Juneau County, Wis., it’s even worse: Prisoners account for 80 percent of the entire population of one district.

In Connecticut, a redistricting expert calculated that nine of the 151 state House districts are able to meet the required minimum population only thanks to prisons within their borders, and that eight of those nine districts encompass predominantly white communities. If the state stopped counting prisoners where they are locked up, the expert said, 22 districts would need to be redrawn.

For most of American history the distortions caused by prison gerrymandering didn’t make much difference. There weren’t that many people behind bars. That changed with the incarceration boom that began in the 1980s. Today, more than two million people are held in state and federal prisons and local jails, with concrete consequences for politics and policy.

In New York, the harsh Rockefeller drug laws, which mandated absurdly long sentences that fell on many young men and women of color, were consistently unpopular with the public. They survived largely because they were defended by legislators who came from districts that benefited from prison gerrymandering. At the height of the prison-building boom in New York, 28 of 29 new prisons were built in upstate and often rural districts, providing a reliable cash flow for those districts even as the inmates they housed were overwhelmingly from the big cities.

Sometimes lawmakers are forthright about the benefits of exploiting prisoners for political gain. In 2015, Janet Adkins, a Republican Florida state representative, told party activists that the best way to oust a Democratic incumbent was to pack her district full of prisoners. Draw it “in such a fashion so perhaps, a majority, or maybe not a majority, but a number of them will live in the prisons, thereby not being able to vote,” Ms. Adkins said.

The best solution to all this is for the Census Bureau, which provides the data for congressional and state districting, to change the “usual residence” rule: that is, stop counting prisoners where they are locked up and start counting them in the place they call home, or at least in the last place they lived before going to prison. That would be consistent with a line of Supreme Court cases holding that a person’s residence isn’t necessarily where she happens to be found at the moment the census occurs, but the place to which she has some “allegiance or enduring tie.”

In 2018, the bureau asked for public comment on the usual residence rule. Of the 77,887 comments it received about prisoners, 77,863 — 99.97 percent — said they should be counted at their home address. Despite the virtually unanimous consensus, the bureau didn’t change the rule, although it agreed to provide states with access to data that make it easier for those that want to reduce the impact of prison gerrymanders.

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