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Prison-Based Gerrymandering Ends in Delaware

Got this happy news in my inbox today, from the Prison Policy Initiative, about an important victory in the movement to end prison-based gerry mandering:

On June 30, the Delaware Senate passed a bill ensuring that incarcerated persons will be counted as residents of their home addresses when new state and local legislative districts are drawn in Delaware. The bill previously passed in the House, and is now awaiting Governor Jack Markell’s signature.

The U.S. Census currently counts incarcerated people as residents of the prison location. When states use Census counts to draw legislative districts, they unintentionally enhance the weight of a vote cast in districts that contain prisons at the expense of all other districts in the state. Delaware is the second state to correct this problem and adjust Census data to count incarcerated persons at their home address, joining Maryland which enacted a bill in April. Similar legislation is pending in New York.

“Delaware’s legislation recognizes that prison-based gerrymandering is a problem of fairness in redistricting. 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, and we applaud the Delaware General Assembly for enacting this common-sense solution,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative.

The problem is national as well. One state assembly district in New York includes 7% prisoners; a state house district in Texas includes 12% prisoners; and 15% of one Montana state house district consists of prisoners imported from other parts of the state. Prison-based gerrymandering was not a serious problem when the prison population was tiny, but the 2010 Census will find five times as many people in prison as it did just three decades ago.

“The Delaware legislature has taken a much-needed step to reflect incarcerated populations in a more accurate way. Delaware’s action should help pave the way for other states to end the distortions caused by counting incarcerated persons in the wrong place,” said Brenda Wright, Director of the Democracy Program at Demos.

The legislation, passed as HB384, applies only to redistricting and would not affect federal or state funding distributions.

What is prison-based gerrymandering, you ask? Here's a little video to help elucidate the subject. That's Prison Policy Initiative's executive director, Peter Wagner, doing the Bob Dylan thing with the cue cards.

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