National

Lawmaker Seeks to Ban Prisoner Gerrymandering

Almost a decade ago, Rep. Lacy Clay expressed concern about those who are housed in federal penal institutions not be counted as a part of the 2010 census in their hometown and states but instead where they are incarcerated.

Clay has raised that concern again as the Trump administration said it will continue that practice for the 2020 census.

“I am appalled that the Census Bureau is proposing to repeat the same misguided mistake regarding prisoner gerrymandering as it did back in 2010,” Clay said. “As I argued then, prisoners do not magically appear from thin air. … They have hometowns. And more than 75 percent of incarcerated persons will eventually return to the communities where they resided before sentencing. Fairness and accuracy dictate that they should be enumerated as residents of their home communities.”

The practice, known as prison gerrymandering, hurt people of color the most, Clay said.

“A repeated failure to reverse the prisoner gerrymandering rule would also be racially discriminatory, depriving minority communities of accurate census counts which would result in reduced political representation and chronic underfunding for critical programs and projects,” he said.

State legislators use census data to redraw district lines for congressional districts and themselves. Federal policymakers and bureaucrats use census data to determine how much money goes to states and municipalities for a wide range of projects and social service uses.

Business owners and developers use census data to measure whether a business or economic development project should be expanded or shuttered.

Clay has said publicly that prison gerrymandering has become a tool of people who don’t want people of color, particularly Blacks and Latinos, to have their share of resources.

To remedy this, Clay has introduced the Correct the Census Count Act of 2019, which would allow prisoner gerrymandering and make sure that federal prisoners who are incarcerated outside of their home state will be counted appropriately. The bill has four co-sponsors, including D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).

“I support this bill because in the District we don’t have a federal prison,” Norton said. “Our inmates are all over the country because of the compromise we made in the 1990s to keep the city from becoming insolvent. In 2010, we heard about incarcerated District residents who didn’t want to be counted in the states they were in but they wanted to be counted as residents of the District.

“Clay’s bill will go a long way in making sure D.C. residents are counted, no matter what their status is and where they are housed,” she said.

The bill also has the support of Democratic Reps. Mark Veasay (Texas), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Mark Pocan (Wis.).

The states of New York, Delaware, California, Washington and Maryland have laws against prisoner gerrymandering, according to the Prison Gerrymandering Project of the Prison Policy Initiative.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons estimates that there are 8,000 prisoners housed in 90 facilities nationwide.

Villareal Johnson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 7, spoke recently about prisoner gerrymandering at a Ward 7 Democrats meeting.

“Council member Robert White has introduced a bill in the D.C. Council that would allow felons incarcerated in other areas voting rights as D.C. residents,” Johnson said. “That should extend to the census. D.C. felons should be counted as being with the District and not where they are incarcerated.”

Johnson said he knows about Clay’s legislation and supports it.

“It has been estimated that every person counted in the census is worth $4,500 in federal assistance,” he said. “That money goes to the municipalities and the states. In the District, we could possibly get millions if D.C. felons are counted with the city and not where they are.”

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