Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

Summary of Remarks on Prison Gerrymandering

Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

Summary of Remarks on Prison Gerrymandering

Article excerpt


Each decade the nation redraws its state and local legislative districts on the basis of population to ensure that each district contains the same population as other districts. In this way, all residents are given the same access to representation and government. However, the Census Bureau's practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison location, instead of their home communities, results in significant distortions, frustrating fair representation.


The way the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people in the decennial census unintentionally undermines the constitutional principle of "one person, one vote." The Bureau tabulates incarcerated people as if they were residents of the locations where they are confined, even though most incarcerated people remain legal residents of their home.

The Census Bureau's practice dates back to 1790, when the first Census was conducted, but it wasn't until the 1990 Census that the rise of mass incarceration created significant distortions in the redistricting data.


Counting incarcerated people as if they were residents of prison locations leads to a dramatic distortion of representation at local and state levels, enhancing the weight of votes cast in districts that contain prisons and diluting the voting power of everyone else.

Incarcerated people come from all over the state, but the Census numbers concentrate the population in clusters of prisons located in a handful of districts. In New Hampshire, for example, just over 40% of the "constituents" counted in one district are incarcerated people, most of whom are likely residents of other districts. This means that every 60 residents of that district get the same representation at the State House as 100 residents of a district without a prison.

The voting power and representation of every resident of every other district is diluted, but the effect is particularly harmful for communities of color. Since the criminal justice system disproportionately incarcerates people of color, in particular Black and Hispanic people, prison gerrymandering disproportionately impacts communities of color. Prison gerrymandering inflates the political power of people who live close to prisons, which are disproportionately sited in white areas, thus suppressing minority voices in state legislatures.

Prison gerrymandering also skews political priorities, often hindering criminal justice reform. For example, before prison gerrymandering was ended in New York, there were seven state senate districts drawn after the 2000 Census that met minimum population requirements only because they used prison populations as padding. …

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