A new report concludes some majority-black legislative districts are penalized because of the way the census bureau counts their imprisoned residents.
-By Emily Badger
June 3, 2010- Sixty-six percent of the inmates in the state of New York come from New York City. But 91 percent of them are incarcerated upstate, in communities where they have long been counted by the U.S. census.
On paper, this means prisoners belong not to the communities from which they’ve come (and to which they eventually will return), but to places where they can neither vote, check out a library book or attend a local school.
The counting quirk sounds like a quandary for demographers. But it also means, come gerrymandering time, that many urban black communities look smaller than they actually are, a disproportionate number of their residents having been counted in the rural areas that are home to penitentiaries.
Most states redraw political districts every 10 years using census data, and so this counting practice has the effect of increasing the political power of anyone who lives near a prison, while decreasing the power of the communities where prisoners legally reside.
Critics disdainfully call the practice “prison-based gerrymandering.”
During the 2000 census, 43,000 New York City residents were counted upstate in this way. Remove them, and seven state senate districts would not have met minimum population requirements and would have had to be redrawn, setting off a chain reaction throughout the state, according to a report released this week by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
This counting method “artificially inflates the population count — and thus, the political influence — of the districts where prisons and jails are located,” wrote the authors of the report, “Captive Constituents: Prison-Based Gerrymandering & The Distortion of Our Democracy.” “At the same time,” they add, “this practice reduces the political power of everyone else. The viability of our communities, integrity of our democracy and basic principles of equality suffer as a result.”