I need your help. Prison gerrymandering gives extra political power to legislators who have prisons in their districts. We put numbers on the problem and sparked a movement to protect our democratic process from the overgrown prison system.

Can you help us continue the fight? Thank you.

—Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

Nevada moved swiftly, ending prison gerrymandering in a single legislative session.

May 31, 2019

For immediate release — Yesterday, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak signed a bill into law ensuring that people in state prisons will be counted as residents of their home addresses when new legislative districts are drawn. The new law makes Nevada the sixth state to end the practice known as prison gerrymandering, after Washington passed its own law just last week.

The Nevada Constitution states that, for the purposes of voting, people in prison should be counted as residents of their hometowns. However, the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the places where they are incarcerated. As a result, when Nevada used Census counts to draw past legislative districts, it unintentionally enhanced the weight of votes cast in districts containing prisons — at the expense of all other districts in the state.

“Nevada’s new law recognizes that ending prison gerrymandering is an important issue of fairness,” said Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. “All districts — some far more than others — send people to prison, but only some districts contain prisons. Counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison gives extra representation to the prison district, dilutes the votes of everyone who does not live next to the state’s largest prison, and distorts the constitutional principle of one person, one vote. This new law offers Nevada voters a fairer data set on which future districts will be drawn.”

prison gerrymandering legislation map

The legislation, passed as AB 450, applies only to redistricting and will not affect federal or state funding distributions.

Six other states have legislation to end prison gerrymandering pending in the current session. “We applaud Washington and Nevada for enacting common-sense solutions in a single legislative session,” Kajstura said. “Other states currently considering similar bills should follow its example.”


Washington State moved swiftly, ending prison gerrymandering in a single legislative session.

May 21, 2019

For immediate release — Today, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill into law ensuring that people in state prisons will be counted as residents of their home addresses when new legislative districts are drawn, making Washington the fifth state to end the practice known as prison gerrymandering.

The Washington State Constitution states that, for the purposes of voting, people in prison should be counted as residents of their hometowns. However, the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the places where they are incarcerated. As a result, when Washington State used Census counts to draw past legislative districts, it unintentionally enhanced the weight of votes cast in districts containing prisons — at the expense of all other districts in the state.

“Washington State’s new law recognizes that ending prison gerrymandering is an important issue of fairness,” said Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, who was present when the bill was signed. “All districts — some far more than others — send people to prison, but only some districts contain prisons. Counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison gives extra representation to the prison district, dilutes the votes of everyone who does not live next to the state’s largest prison, and distorts the constitutional principle of one person, one vote. This new law offers Washington voters a fairer data set on which future districts will be drawn.”

bill signing ceremony photo

The legislation, passed as SB 5287, applies only to redistricting and will not affect federal or state funding distributions.

Five other states have legislation to end prison gerrymandering pending in the current session. “We applaud Washington State for enacting this common-sense solution in a single legislative session,” Kajstura said. “Other states currently considering similar bills should follow its example.”

The states with pending legislation include:

  • Connecticut: HB 5611, introduced by the Government Administration and Elections Committee for the January Session, 2019.
  • New Jersey: S758, “requir[ing] incarcerated individual from State to be counted at residential address for legislative redistricting purposes”, introduced by Senators Sandra Cunningham and Nilsa Cruz-Perez, January 9, 2018, and A1987, introduced by Assemblymembers Sumter, Mukherji, Quijano, and Pinkin, January 9, 2018.
  • Oregon: HB 2492, “Relating to redistricting”, has chief sponsors Representative Holvey and Senator Prozanski and regular sponsors Representatives Nosse, Piluso, Sanchez, filed on January 14, 2019.
  • Rhode Island: H 5513, “Residence of Those in Government Custody Act”, introduced by Representatives Williams, Vella-Wilkinson, Craven, Caldwell, and Almeida, February 14, 2019. And S 232, “Residence of Those in Government Custody Act”, introduced by Senators Metts, Nesselbush, Quezada, Cano, and Crowley, January 31, 2019.
  • Texas: “An Act Relating to the inclusion of an incarcerated person in the population data used for redistricting according to the person’s last residence before incarceration” was filed by Representative Johnson as HB 104 on November 12, 2018.

Pending Governor Jay Inslee's signature, Washington State will become the fifth state to count incarcerated people at their home addresses during redistricting.

April 23, 2019

On April 23, the Washington state legislature passed a bill ensuring that incarcerated persons will be counted as residents of their home addresses when new legislative districts are drawn in Washington. The bill is now awaiting Governor Jay Inslee’s signature.

The Washington State Constitution states that, for the purposes of voting, people in prison should be counted as residents of their hometowns. However, the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the places where they are incarcerated. As a result, when Washington State uses Census counts to draw legislative districts, it unintentionally enhances the weight of a vote cast in districts that contain prisons at the expense of all other districts in the state.

This problem is national, affecting not only Washington but all states. Our past research has found one state house district in Texas, for instance, that was 12% incarcerated people; and 15% of one Montana state house district consisted of incarcerated people imported from other parts of the state.

Washington State is poised to become the fifth state to correct this problem by adjusting Census data to count incarcerated persons at their home address, joining New York, Maryland, Delaware, and California. Nine other states have legislation pending in the current session.

The legislation, passed as SB 5287, applies only to redistricting and would not affect federal or state funding distributions.

“Washington’s legislation recognizes that prison-based gerrymandering is a problem of fairness,” said Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. “All districts — some far more than others — send people to prison, but only some districts have large prisons. Counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison distorts the principle of one person, one vote. This new law offers Washington voters a fairer data set on which future districts will be drawn.”


The Washington State legislature is close to passing a bill enabling its redistricting commission to end prison gerrymandering.

by Aleks Kajstura, April 16, 2019

Washington State is poised to become the fifth state to end prison gerrymandering. SB 5287, sponsored by Senators Darneille and Hunt, introduced on January 17, 2019; the bill passed the Senate on March 11, 2019, and the House on April 16, 2019.

Because the bill was amended in the House, it will now go back to the Senate for a concurrence vote. (The House amendment clarified how incarcerated people from out of state or with unknown addresses would be counted.)

The Census Bureau has decided to count incarcerated people in the wrong place again at the next Census, so states are taking action on their own now to avoid prison gerrymandering after the 2020 Census. Washington is one of ten states with bills to end prison gerrymandering pending this session, if the bills pass these states would join California, Delaware, Maryland and New York in ensuring equal representation for their residents.


If it passes, the bill would make New Jersey the fifth state to end prison gerrymandering.

by Aleks Kajstura, February 26, 2019

The New Jersey State Senate passed a bill to end prison gerrymandering on Thursday, with bipartisan support. The identical Assembly counterpart to the bill, A1987, is still pending.

Our New Jersey campaign page has fact sheets, testimony, and other information on the effort to end prison gerrymandering in the state. We’re thrilled to see this bill moving forward after the last legislative session, where the legislation made it all the way to the Governor’s desk, only to be vetoed by former Governor Christie.

The Census Bureau has decided to count incarcerated people in the wrong place again at the next Census, so states need to take action on their own now to avoid prison gerrymandering after the 2020 Census. New Jersey is one of six states with bills to end prison gerrymandering pending this session, if the bills pass these states would join California, Delaware, Maryland and New York in ensuring equal representation for their residents.


Bills to end prison gerrymandering are pending in six states' new legislative sessions. Conn. prison gerrymandering challenge passes first hurdle in court.

by Aleks Kajstura, February 21, 2019

On Tuesday, the NAACP’s lawsuit challenging prison gerrymandering in Connecticut survived the state’s motion to dismiss before the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.

While the status quo is challenged in the courts, the state continues to consider a legislative solution. The Government Administration and Elections Committee heard testimony on House Bill 5611 last Friday. (Testimony from the hearing, and other info on efforts to end prison gerrymandering in Connecticut is available on our Connecticut campaign page.)

Connecticut is one of six states with bills to end prison gerrymandering pending this session:

  • Connecticut:HB 5611, introduced by the Government Administration and Elections Committee for the January Session, 2019.
  • New Jersey: S758, “requir[ing] incarcerated individual from State to be counted at residential address for legislative redistricting purposes”, introduced by Senators Sandra Cunningham and Nilsa Cruz-Perez, January 9, 2018, and A1987, introduced by Assemblymembers Sumter, Mukherji, Quijano, and Pinkin, January 9, 2018.
  • Oregon: HB 2492, “Relating to redistricting”, has chief sponsors Representative Holvey and Senator Prozanski and regular sponsors Representatives Nosse, Piluso, Sanchez, filed on January 14, 2019.
  • Rhode Island: H 5513, “Residence of Those in Government Custody Act”, introduced by Representatives Williams, Vella-Wilkinson, Craven, Caldwell, and Almeida, February 14, 2019. And S 232, “Residence of Those in Government Custody Act”, introduced by Senators Metts, Nesselbush, Quezada, Cano, and Crowley, January 31, 2019.
  • Texas: “An Act Relating to the inclusion of an incarcerated person in the population data used for redistricting according to the person’s last residence before incarceration” was filed by Representative Johnson as HB 104 on November 12, 2018.
  • Washington: “Ensuring accurate redistricting”, SB 5287, sponsored by Senators Darneille and Hunt, introduced on January 17, 2019.

AGs should take an active role in ensuring an accurate 2020 Census. Part of that is tackling prison gerrymandering.

by Aleks Kajstura, October 11, 2018

Yesterday John Thompson, the most recent Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, and Robert Yablon, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin published a briefing for state attorneys general. The brief urges attorneys general to start planning for the 2020 Census now, and highlights key issues facing the states, including prison gerrymandering:

…[A]ttorneys general can spur reflection and reform when it comes to how their jurisdictions use census data. Although the federal government must rely on the Census Bureau’s actual enumeration for purposes of congressional apportionment, states often have more flexibility to use adjusted numbers or to decouple state programs from census data. By way of example, the Census Bureau counts prisoners at their incarceration site rather than at their prior place of residence.
This practice, which some dub “prison gerrymandering,” has long been controversial because it serves to shift political representation … toward communities with correctional facilities and away from prisoners’ home communities. Seeing this as inequitable, a handful of states have rejected the Census Bureau’s approach and reallocate prisoners to their communities of origin when counting their populations for redistricting and other purposes.

Four states and over 200 counties and municipalities already avoid prison gerrymandering, but more work needs to be done.

Efforts to end prison gerrymandering often focus on state legislative action, but as Thompson and Yablon point out, attorneys general play an important role in ensuring equal representation by advising redistricting bodies to comply with principles of one person, one vote. In fact attorneys general already have a long history of guiding municipalities and counties to avoid prison gerrymandering in city councils and county boards even when the state legislatures continue to draw districts based on prisons rather than people.


Census Bureau announcement means another decade of prison gerrymandering. State-by-state reforms are urgent.

February 7, 2018

For Immediate Release — Today, the U.S. Census Bureau announced how it will define residence for the 2020 Census. Ignoring overwhelming public support for a change in how incarcerated persons are counted in the Census, the Bureau announced it is leaving in place the inaccurate and outdated practice of counting incarcerated persons as “residents” of the prison locations instead of their home communities. In response to this development, the Prison Policy Initiative released the following statement:

The Prison Policy Initiative is profoundly disappointed by the Census Bureau proposal to again count nearly 2 million people in the wrong place on Census day. Continuing this practice will ensure another decade of “prison gerrymandering” that unjustly awards extra political power to the regions that host prisons, perverting the principles of equal representation.

Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said “The Census Bureau blatantly ignored the overwhelming consensus urging a change in the Census count for incarcerated persons. When the Bureau asked for public comment on its residence rules two years ago, over 99% of the 77,863 comments regarding residence rules for incarcerated persons urged the Bureau to count incarcerated persons at their home address, which is almost always their legal address. By planning to once again count incarcerated people as if they were residents of correctional facilities, the Census Bureau has simply disregarded input from the public, redistricting experts, and legislators.”

“The Bureau’s decision is inconsistent with the way the ‘usual residence’ rule is applied to other similarly-situated people,” explained Legal Director Aleks Kajstura. “The Census Bureau is picking favorites based on economic and racial privilege: if boarding school students are deemed to live at home, then the same logic should be applied to incarcerated people.”

The Prison Policy Initiative, along with many other civil rights, voting rights, and criminal justice advocates, have long urged the Bureau to update its rules on incarcerated persons. As our research has demonstrated over the last two decades, the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people at the location of the facility harms our democracy at all levels of government.

When state and local officials use the Census Bureau’s prison count data attributing ‘residence’ to the prison location, they give extra representation to the communities that host the prisons and dilute the representation of everyone else. This is harmful to rural communities that contain large prisons, because it seriously distorts redistricting at the local level of county commissions, city councils, and school boards. It also harms urban communities by not crediting them with the incarcerated population whose legal residence never changed.

The Census Bureau defines “usual residence” as the place where a person “eats and sleeps most of the time”, but fails to follow that rule when counting incarcerated people. Treating a prison as a “usual residence” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of incarceration. The critical issue is that while a prison itself seems permanent, the people located there on any given day are not. The majority of people incarcerated in Rhode Island, for example, spend less than 100 days in the state’s correctional facilities. If the same people were instead spending 100 days in their summer residence, the Bureau would count them at their regular home address. The Census Bureau continues to carve out an unexplained exception for incarcerated people in order to count them in the wrong place.

Counting incarcerated people at the location of the facility reduces the accuracy of Census data about communities of color. For example, because African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately incarcerated, counting incarcerated people in the wrong location is particularly bad for proper representation of African-American and Latino communities. Today’s decision continues to sacrifice the accuracy of the Census and harm communities of color.

Despite this major disappointment, the advocates noted two positive developments and pledged to redouble their efforts to help states make the data suitable for redistricting. The Bureau is planning on publishing correctional facility populations early — at the same time as the main redistricting data files that they send to the states. And the Bureau is offering to help states with the number crunching required to adjust the redistricting data on their own even as it leaves people across the country at the mercy of an ad hoc approach to equal representation.

The earlier data publication will make the data adjustments easier for states that end prison gerrymandering on their own, and will be particularly useful for states with short redistricting deadlines. This data will give redistricting officials the Census counts of people in correctional facilities at the location of the facility – enabling states to subtract incarcerated people from the prison location and, in conjunction with the state’s own home address data, reallocate them back home for that state’s redistricting.

The Prison Policy Initiative has long argued that the Census Bureau is in the best position to end prison gerrymandering nationwide, and the organization hopes that, by 2030, the Bureau’s residence rules will reflect reality. But with 2020 and redistricting just around the corner, today’s disappointing announcement makes it all the more urgent that more states pass legislation to end prison gerrymandering in their states.

 

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Prison gerrymandering does not impact federal aid, "there is not a straight linear relationship between state population count and federal funds flow".

by Aleks Kajstura, August 22, 2017

Today, as happens every once in a while, a new estimate was published of how much federal funding is guided by the Census. And some folks familiar with how prison gerrymandering impacts representation start worrying whether it also impacts funding allocation. The short answer is that it does not. The long answer can be found here.

The Leadership Conference’s Counting for Dollars: Why It Matters fact sheet puts this latest analysis in context. And as the report, Counting for Dollars 2020: The Role of the Decennial Census in the Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds itself explains, per capita analyses of this type cannot be used to calculate how money follows people:

There is not a straight linear relationship between state population count and federal funds flow. The per capita figure allows cross-state comparisons of fiscal reliance on census-guided programs. It does not indicate the amount by which federal funding increases for each additional person counted.


Gov. Christie vetoes bill that would have ended prison gerrymandering in New Jersey; denies equal representation to state residents.

by Aleks Kajstura, July 14, 2017

Resurfacing debunked arguments, Governor Christie just vetoed a bill that would have ended prison gerrymandering in New Jersey. Senate Bill 587 passed the Senate in November, and the Assembly on Monday, May 22.

The Governor’s actions perpetuate a reliance on flawed data that results in using prison populations to pad the legislative districts that contain prisons. This enhances the weight of votes cast in those districts, while diluting every vote cast by every other person in the state. In practice, prison gerrymandering uses prisons to transfer power away from home communities of incarcerated people to those who live near prisons.

The problem is amplified by New Jersey’s voting laws. Like in most states, people convicted of felonies in New Jersey cannot vote while they are incarcerated, and those who are incarcerated for misdemeanors or awaiting trial vote absentee in their home districts. This makes sense; after all, people have much closer ties to their home community than where they happen to be incarcerated on Census Day. Incarcerated people are transferred frequently between facilities, generally staying at any given facility for just 7-9 months (a fact ignored by Christie). This means that someone who votes while incarcerated is required to vote for their representative in their home district, but on paper gets counted toward as a constituent of the representative of the prison district. This mismatch creates unequal representation.

And New Jersey had already taken steps to ameliorate the effects of prison gerrymandering on school boards; extending those equal representation protections to state legislative districts was the logical next step.

Senate Bill 587 was a simple state-based solution to a problem that should have been corrected by the federal government. The bill would have used the state’s administrative records to reassign incarcerated people to their home addresses before redistricting. And to address a common misconception related to the distribution of funding (which Christie also alluded to): the bill would have no effect on the distribution of federal or state funds — all funding programs have their own data sources that do not rely on redistricting data.

Ideally, the U.S. Census Bureau will change its policy and count incarcerated people as residents of their home addresses. And last year, the Census Bureau sought comments on its current practice of counting incarcerated people at the location of the correctional facility in which they happen to be on Census day, rather than at home where they live. The Census Bureau had yet to release a final rule on where it will count incarcerated people 2020 census.

States need to take action now, on their own while waiting for the Census Bureau to correct the way it counts incarcerated people. There is still time before the next redistricting cycle for New Jersey to join California, Delaware, Maryland and New York in ensuring equal representation for their residents by ending prison gerrymandering on its own.



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