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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Maryland Ends Prison-Based Gerrymandering

Maryland Ends Prison-Based Gerrymandering

by Colin Asher

Recently, while researching a story, I visited Auburn, NY, a small city of about 28,000 located just 30 miles south of Lake Ontario. I was there to visit Auburn correctional facility, a prison set right in the middle of the city, with a capacity of 1,800. Every man I spoke with inside the prison was from New York City. Strange thing is, though the prison is a six-hour drive north of their homes, for the purposes of the Census and political representation, each of them was being counted as a resident of Auburn.

The same is true in every state. Every state, that is, except Maryland — which just passed a law ensuring that incarcerated persons will be counted as residents of their home addresses when new legislative districts are drawn. Eight other states are currently considering similar legislation.

As we've previously written about here, counting prisoners as residents of the district they're incarcerated in, rather than the one they're from, enhances the political power of districts with prisons. And it does so at the expense of every other district in the state.

You might think the effect is negligible. It's not.

Maryland is a good case in point. According to the Prison Policy Institute, 18% of the residents that comprise District 2B (near Hagerstown) are prisoners from other parts of the state. And when such prisoners are counted as part of the district — as they have been for years — every group of 82 residents in District 2B has much political influence as any group of 100 residents from other districts.

Prison-based gerrymandering, as it has become known, also effects the racial composition of districts. In District 2B, 90% of the 5,628 African Americans that were counted during the last Census were people who were incarcerated, but originally hailed from other parts of the state.

Nationwide, counting prisoners as residents of the districts they're incarcerated in shifts power away from dense urban areas and toward rural areas, where prisons tend to be located. It also dilutes the political power of heavily African-American districts. Tellingly, the power behind the legislation recently passed in Maryland was the state's Legislative Black Caucus. They made the right move. Hopefully, the other states considering similar measures will also do the right thing.

That means you, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

Photo Credit: danielle2cook4u

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