Census Bureau will make it easier for cities to avoid Gerrymandering in prison
The US Census Bureau will release the data that states, counties, and cities use to draw new legislative districts next month, and this time it will include the number of people incarcerated in specific jurisdictions.
This can make it easier for cities and local counties to avoid gerrymandering in prisons, in which a municipality draws legislative, district or ward boundaries that do not take prison population into account.
“The Census Bureau counts people incarcerated where they are on Census Day, not where they have to serve most of the time,” said Aleks Kajstura, legal director of the Prison Policy Initiative. .
This can distort the local representation of predominantly rural populations. Missouri cities and Illinois who have prisons because the incarcerated population can represent a significant percentage of a city’s registered population, she said.
“You can end up with neighborhoods that have virtually no city residents,” Kajstura said. “No one will go that far. People realize that something is going on and they solve the problem.
It is more realistic for a neighborhood or district to be 40 to 50 percent incarcerated, where some residents of a municipality will be over-represented, she explained. It can change the way a government prioritizes projects, like paving roads and laying sidewalks, Kajstura said.
The issue of over-representation might be exaggerated, said Farmington, Missouri, city administrator Gary Beavers. The community 70 miles south of St. Louis includes the Farmington Correctional Facility and another facility that adds about 3,500 residents to the town of about 20,000, he said.
“The bigger you get, the more important it is for the city councilor and alderman to defend their parish,” Beavers said. “When you’re small enough, everything affects everyone. “
Small town city councils tend to recognize which parts need work, regardless of the neighborhood they are in, he added.
Farmington is a town identified by the Prison Policy Initiative which works to prevent gerrymandering in prison.
“We come to recognize that these people inside the institution are not the people we represent with most of the problems in the city,” Beavers said.
The Prison Policy Initiative identified 16 towns and counties in Illinois that engaged in gerrymandering in prison after the 2010 census. That number in Missouri was 14 local municipalities.
One is Pacific, Missouri, where the question of whether to include incarcerated people in determining ward boundaries did not arise.
“I don’t know how this council would view this issue,” said city administrator Steve Roth.
Unlike partisan gerrymandering, municipalities are not actively trying to change the way their residents are represented, ”Kajstura said.
“For the most part, it’s not intentional, and when cities and counties find out they have this problem in their data, they fix it themselves,” she said.
Kajstura would prefer more states to pass laws explicitly prohibiting gerrymandering in prison, as Illinois did with its criminal justice reform bill earlier this year. However, this provision does not apply until 2030.
Beavers also would like Missouri lawmakers to develop clear guidelines on how to deal with prison populations during redistribution.
“Either you count them when you draw the lines for your service, or you exclude them entirely, which I would prefer, just exclude them entirely,” he said. “Our solution has always been the lack of a clear direction on how you treat people in prison.”
Eric Schmid covers Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the Journalism Fellowship Program: Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth project.