While extreme partisan gerrymandering has drawn headlines with recent cases in the Supreme Court and in state courthouses across the country, prison gerrymandering is another example of why we are in dire need of redistricting reform. Prison gerrymandering allows politicians to count incarcerated people as residents of their prisons when drawing electoral maps. In other words, rather than being counted as residents of their home communities, they are counted as “residents” of the prison and therefore inflate the headcount of residents within a district.
The end result is those incarcerated cannot vote but are used politically to siphon federal funds towards what are predominately whiter and rural communities. As the Prison Policy Initiative explains, “counting the people in prison in the wrong place now undermines the Supreme Court’s requirement that political power be apportioned on the basis of population. The process of drawing fair and equal districts fails when the underlying data are flawed.”
In January 2021, the Illinois General Assembly passed House Bill 3653, a bill which included language prohibiting prison gerrymandering in Illinois. If signed by Governor Pritzker, Illinois would become the 10th state in the nation that has banned prison gerrymandering.
THE NATIONAL LANDSCAPE
Across America, there is a movement to encourage states and local units of government to remedy this injustice by adopting laws and ordinances excluding incarcerated populations from an areas count of residents. On the federal level, in March 2019, Democrat Congressman Mark Pocan of Wisconsin offered an amendment to H.R. 1, the For The People Act, that would end prison gerrymandering by requiring that incarcerated persons are counted in Census population counts as residents of correctional facilities and not their most recent residence prior to imprisonment (Pocan has long been an advocate for the issue). The amendment was adopted by the House. There is no legislation pending in the Senate that addresses this issue. Meanwhile, federal courts have found that prison gerrymandering violates the principle of “one person, one vote.”
The U.S. Census Bureau has traditionally counted people based on the concept of “usual residence,” a fact cited by supporters of prison gerrymandering. Although almost all of the comments it received on the topic when it was open for public comment this year were in favor of counting incarcerated persons at their home residence (77,863 comments), the Bureau did not change its practice of counting them as residents of their prison or jail area for purposes of the 2020 Census.
On the state level, only six states have an outright ban on prison gerrymandering, while five states ban it under certain circumstances. Legislation has been defeated in nearly a dozen other states. Illinois is on the cusp of becoming the 10th state in the nation to ban the practice.
THE ILLINOIS LANDSCAPE
Meanwhile, some counties and cities have chosen to already ban prison gerrymandering within their local jurisdictions. Those include: Bond County, Christian County, Crawford County, Fayette County, Fulton County, Jefferson County, Lawrence County, Lee County, Livingston County, Montgomery County, Rock Island County, Will County and the following Illinois cities: Canton, Chester, Crest Hill, Danville, East Moline, Galesburg, Jacksonville, Pontiac, Robinson, St. Charles.
While there is some overlap between the counties that have passed reforms and areas of concentrated prison population, some of the counties that have at least 10% of their residents as prisoners have not passed such reforms. These include Brown, Logan, Clinton, Perry, Johnson and Alexander counties.
The legal case for upholding any ban on prison gerrymandering in Illinois appears sound. As Brett Blank and Peter Wagner wrote about Illinois in 2010, Illinois case law has long held that “a person confined in prison under the judgment and sentence of a court does not thereby change his residence.
- Most of the state’s prisoners (60%) are Chicago residents, but the vast majority of them (90%) are counted as residents of downstate prisons.
- Every prison built in Illinois after 1941 was built more than 100 miles away from Chicago; the average distance from Chicago to a prison is more than 200 miles.
- The City of Crest Hill adjusts population data when drawing its districts, and excludes the prison population. Crest Hill’s District 2 contains Stateville Correctional Center, it would be about 60% prisoners if the City included the prison in population data when redistricting in 2012.
- After redistricting following the 2010 Census, 34% of LaSalle County’s 6th district is incarcerated, giving every group of 66 residents in that district the same voting power as 100 residents in any other district.