Census Bureau Will Make It Easier For Cities To Avoid Prison Gerrymandering
The U.S. Census Bureau will release the data that states, counties and cities use to draw new legislative districts next month, and this time it will include the number of incarcerated people in specific jurisdictions.
This can make it easier for local cities and counties to avoid prison gerrymandering, in which a municipality draws legislative, district or ward boundaries that don’t take the prison population into account.
“The Census Bureau counts incarcerated people at the location of the facility where they happen to be on the Census Day, not where they have to be serving most of the time,” said Aleks Kajstura, legal director of the Prison Policy Initiative.
This can distort local representation for the mostly rural cities of Missouri and Illinois that have prisons, because the incarcerated population can make up a significant percentage of a city’s recorded population, she said.
“You can end up with districts that basically have no city residents in them,” Kajstura said. “Nobody gets that far. People realize there’s something up and they solve the problem.”
It’s more realistic that a ward or district is 40% to 50% incarcerated, to where some of a municipality’s residents will be overrepresented, she explained. This can change how a government prioritizes projects, like paving roads and laying sidewalks, Kajstura said.
The issue of overrepresentation might be overblown, said Farmington, Missouri, City Administrator Gary Beavers. The community 70 miles south of St. Louis includes the Farmington Correctional Facility and another institution that add approximately 3,500 in population to the town of about 20,000, he said.
“The bigger you get, the more important it is that the councilman and alderman are advocating for their ward,” Beavers said. “When you’re small enough, everything affects everybody.”
City councils in smaller towns tend to recognize which parts need work regardless of which ward it’s in, he added.
Farmington is one city identified by the Prison Policy Initiative that works to avoid prison gerrymandering.
“We just recognized that those people inside the institution are not people we represent with most city issues,” Beavers said.
The Prison Policy Initiative identified 16 cities and counties in Illinois that engaged in prison gerrymandering after the 2010 census. That number in Missouri was 14 local municipalities.
One is Pacific, Missouri, where the question of whether to include incarcerated people in determining ward boundaries hasn’t come up.
“I don’t know how this board would view that question,” said City Administrator Steve Roth.
Unlike with partisan gerrymandering, municipalities aren’t actively trying to change how their residents are represented,” Kajstura said.
“For the most part it’s unintentional, and when cities and counties find out they have this problem in their data, they fix it on their own,” she said.
Kajstura would prefer more states pass statutes that explicitly prohibit prison gerrymandering, as Illinois did with its criminal justice reform law earlier this year. That provision doesn’t apply until 2030, though.
Beavers would also like to see Missouri lawmakers develop clear guidelines for how to treat inmate populations when redistricting.
“You either count them when you’re drawing your ward lines or you exclude them entirely, which I would prefer, to just exclude them entirely,” he said. “Our solution has always been absent clear direction on how you treat the population in the prison.”
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.