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Redistricting: How do you count state prisoners?

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

California’s 80th Assembly District has another claim to fame besides being vast and largely empty: One out of every 11 people in it is a prison inmate who didn’t choose to be there.

If Assemblyman Mike Davis gets his way, in a decade, the 80th AD would get even more vast empty land — because those prisoners wouldn’t count when it comes to drawing new political districts.

The Los Angeles Democrat has authored AB 420, which would change the state’s reapportionment procedure to count prisoners in their districts of origin, instead of where they are incarcerated. In the Census, inmates currently are counted as citizens of the districts where they are imprisoned — even though they can’t vote and aren’t there on purpose. If passed, the new law wouldn’t go into effect until the next redistricting, which will be based on the 2020 census.

Davis said the change is a matter of fairness — and to make sure that state law complies with the existing elections code, which also calls for prisoners to be counted in their areas of origin.
He estimated the cost to implement the change at only about $30,000, well under the $150,000 threshold which would trigger review by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, a traditional graveyard of expensive or controversial legislation.

Most of the nation still operates under the system that counts prisoners as residents of the areas where they are incarcerated. Delaware and Maryland are key exceptions. The other extreme was the town of Anamosa, Iowa, which from 2000 to 2008 had a city council district made up of about 60 town residents who were eligible to vote and 1,300 state penitentiary prisoners who weren’t. In 2003, a man won a city council seat based on two write-in votes, from his wife and next door neighbor.

Traditionally, efforts to change how prisoners are counted have been supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans. The effect of rules counting prisoners where they sleep has usually been to shift population counts from urban areas usually represented by Democrats to rural areas which generally elect Republicans. New York State changed their law last year to count prisoners in their areas of origin, prompting a lawsuit by nine Republican state senators, most of them representing rural, upstate districts. One of the lead plaintiffs, Republican Sen. Betty Little, has a district that includes 10 facilities with 12,000 total prisoners.

There’s also a racial issue. Blacks and Latinos make up about two-thirds of California’s prison population, but only about 43 percent of the state’s population. African-Americans in particular are over-represented, making up only 6.2 percent of the population but 28 percent of prisoners.

Davis noted that with the average prison sentence at less than three years, most of these prisoners will soon be back in their local communities and have no long term stake in the areas where they are being counted.
Not surprisingly, AB 420 is supported by the NAACP and many other civil rights and prisoners rights groups.
“This makes a mockery of one person, one vote,” said Dale Ho of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund at a Tuesday afternoon Capitol press conference for the bill. “No one’s vote should count more just because you live near a state prison.”

Read the full article here.