Prison-based Gerrymandering is when State and Local Governments count incarcerated people as residents of the District where they are being held, artificially inflating the population of the Districts where prisons and jails are located and giving these Districts undue political influence.
Representative Democracy is rooted in the idea that equal numbers of people should have equal influence over the Legislative process. The Census is used as a tool to reshape the Legislative Districts to maintain equal populations in each District. Prison-based Gerrymandering distorts this process.
It gets worse. Because our criminal "justice" policies are steeped in racial discrimination, the communities that are the most victimized by this practice are urban, Black and Latino, weakening their voting strength and transferring political power from urban communities of color to predominantly white rural areas.
As explained by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, African-Americans are 12.7% of the general population, but are 41.3% of the Federal and State prison population. Members of the disproportionately minority incarcerated population are largely held in areas that are both geographically and demographically far removed from their home communities.
In New York, for example, approximately 77% of all prisoners are African-American or Latino, but 98% of all prisons are located in disproportionately white State Senate Districts. Nationally, rural communities make up only about 20% of the U.S. population, but it is estimated that 40% of all incarcerated persons are held in facilities located in rural areas.
There's more. 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. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, "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 unexplained exception for incarcerated people makes less sense once you take into consideration that other populations, such as deployed overseas military, and juveniles staying in residential treatment centers, are counted in their home location even if they are sleeping elsewhere on Census Day.
California, Delaware, Maryland and New York have already adopted their own legislation to count incarcerated persons in the right location, and hundreds of municipalities have acted against Prison-based Gerrymandering. Jefferson County, FL and Cranston, RI have seen successful Equal Protection challenges to Prison Gerrymandering in Federal District courts. By not ending this practice, the Census Bureau has regulated that people across the Country will continue to be at the mercy of an Ad Hoc approach to equal representation.
The rules for the 2020 Census have not yet been set. The Census Bureau will accept comments on their proposed guidelines through September 1, 2016 before moving forward.
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